Usability for Hackers: Developers, Anthropology, and Making Software More Usable

Usability begins with anthropology

… and hackers have a good start on anthropology

If you’re reading this text, there’s a good chance that you are already halfway to being an anthropologist. Note: for the purposes of this chapter, ‘anthropology’ is used to refer to cultural anthropology. Other anthropological disciplines exist, but it is cultural anthropology and its techniques which are most directly relevant here.

How could an author know that you are probably at least half an anthropologist? Let’s turn the question around, and suppose you are a Python hacker. Why are you reading this article? Visual Basic .NET has enormous marketing muscle behind it, possibly eclipsing the marketing budgets for all open source technologies put together. Guido van Rossum holds a dim view of marketing, as does much of the Python community. Monster.com lists three thousand Visual Basic positions, almost five thousand .NET positions, but only one thousand Python positions. Why are you reading a “usability for hackers” article when you could be reading a title like Completely Master Visual Basic in Thirty Seconds or Less?

You are probably a hacker. It does not matter if you were mortified when you found out the preferred JavaScript technique to create an object with fields that aren’t globally accessible variables, or if you wince when you hear of a devious way to get technology to do things that shouldn’t be possible, or if you have no desire to be considered a 133t hax0r. You’re probably a hacker. The classic “How to Become a Hacker” for the most part outlines things that have a very obvious relationship to being a hacker: attitudes towards technical problem solving, or learning an open source Unix, learning to program and contribute to the web, and so on and so forth. Towards the end there is a particularly interesting section because on the surface it looks completely beside the point. The section is titled “Points for Style,” and mentions learning to write well, reading in science fiction, training in martial arts, meditation, music (preferably obscure), and wordplay. Other things could be added: avoiding mainstream TV or having arcane hobbies and interests, for instance, so that in a social context hackers may ask each other questions about obscure hobbies as a rough social equivalent to, “What’s your favorite TV show?”

Not that any of these is necessary to be a hacker, but together these common trends point to a personality profile that can learn the anthropological style of observation relevant to usability work much more easily than the general public, or even Joe Professional Programmer who regards learning new technologies as a necessary evil rather than a joy, works in Visual Basic .NET after being swayed by advertising, goes home and watches TV after work, has probably never heard of ThinkGeek, and would probably rather do gift shopping at Walmart even if he does know of ThinkGeek.

All of this is to say that the culture surrounding you is not like water to a fish. It is a basic fact of life that you don’t automatically share the perspective of others. Cross-cultural experience or ethnic minority status may accentuate this, but this is true even if you’re not (regarded as) a minority. And this kind of experience provides a very good foundation for anthropological ways of understanding exactly how you are not a user and users don’t think like you.

Anthropological usability techniques

An introductory example: Card sorting

One basic challenge for organizing a site’s information architecture is the taxonomy, or way of breaking things down. If one is asked what an example of a good taxonomy, one example of a taxonomy par excellence is the biological taxonomy that organizes all the way from kingdoms down to species or subspecies and varieties. And indeed that is one kind of taxonomy, but it is not the only possibility. If one is asked to break down a list of a fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese, one obvious way is to put the fork and spoon together as cutlery, the plate and bowl together as dishware, and the soup and macaroni and cheese together as food. But this is not the only basic way, and it can make sense to put the fork, plate, and macaroni and cheese together as representing one complete option, and the spoon, bowl, and soup together as representing another basic option. Stores and websites that have adopted the latter approach, such as a gardening store or website that organizes its products according to the type of garden a customer is trying to make and what the customer is trying to do, see a significant increase in sales. Even biology could use other complementary technologies: a taxonomy that classified organisms according to both ecosystems and their roles within their ecosystems and ecological subsystems could say something very valuable that the eighteenth century classification wouldn’t.

In terms of websites, an information architecture that corresponds to the organization’s org chart is never a helpful choice. Even when we are talking about an intranet intended only for organizational insiders, one section or subsite for each department is not the right choice: one better option would be to support workflow and design around the tasks that employees will be doing with the intranet.

What is the best information architecture? That’s not a question to answer by looking something in a book or even thinking it out; it is something that we should work out based on what we observe doing research, even if we also read and need to do a bit of thinking. And this is the best practice across the board for usability.

One valuable exercise to help guide information architecture design is called card sorting. In this exercise, we get a stack of index cards, perhaps 3×5″, and write the individual names of different pieces of functionality the website should offer, trying to name things neutrally so that the names do not have common terms suggesting how certain parts belong together. Then we shuffle and lay out the cards, and individually ask subjects (people who will participate in an experiment and who are not insiders, whether employees of your organization for an external website, or information technology professionals) to organize them so that cards that belong together are put in the same stack.

Then we note which cards have been placed together, thank the subject, and move on to the next person.

On looking through the notes, we may see a few things. First, not all people think the same. We will likely see some breakdowns that are very similar, but there will likely be two or more breakdowns as fundamentally divergent as our breakdowns of the fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese. Second, there will probably be a breakdown that simply catches us off guard. And this is good; it means the exercise is working.

After doing this, we can go about looking for a preferably standard information architecture that will gracefully serve the major ways we observed of breaking things down.

Focus groups: Cargo cult research for usability

With an eye to how to best approach observation, we would like to take a moment to talk about Coca-Cola’s blunder with “New Coke” and explain why focus groups, bringing in a group of people and asking them what they want, are deprecated as a recipe to make products that look good on paper but don’t wear well in normal use. For those of you who don’t remember the uproar some years back, the Coca-Cola company announced that it was switching to a new and improved formula, and there was massive public outlash from people who wanted the old Coke back. (Now the company sells both the old formula as Coke Classic and the new formula as Coke II, and Coke Classic is vastly more popular.)

Why would the Coca-Cola company announce it was terminating its cash cow? The answer is that it did naïve marketing research, ran taste tests, and asked members of the public which they would choose: the formula today sold as Coke Classic, or the formula today sold as Coke II. The rather clear answer from the taste tests was that people said they would rather have the new formula, and it was a clear enough answer that it looked like a sensible course of action to simply drop the second-best formula. It wasn’t until everybody could see that the Coca-Cola company had given itself a PR black eye that the company woke up to a baseline observation in anthropology: the horse’s mouth is a vastly overrated source of information. Most anthropological observation, including the kinds relevant to usability, are about paying close attention to what people do, and not be too distracted by their good faith efforts to explain things that are very hard to get right.

Anthropological observation: The bedrock of usability

There is more than one way to see the same situation

The kind of observation needed is probably closest to the anthropological technique of participant observation, except that instead of participating in using software or a website, we are observing others as they use software. Half the goal is to understand how the same thing can be observed differently. To quote from James Spradley’s Participant Observation, which is an excellent resource:

One afternoon in 1973 I came across the following news item in the Minneapolis Tribune:

Nov. 23, 1973. Hartford, Connecticut. Three policemen giving a heart massage and oxygen to a heart attack victim Friday were attacked by a crowd of 75 to 100 people who apparently did not realize what the policemen were doing. Other policemen fended off the crowd of mostly Spanish-speaking residents until an ambulance arrived. Police said they tried to explain to the crowd what they were doing, but the crowd apparently thought they were beating the woman.

Despite the policemen’s efforts the victim, Evangelica Echevacria, 59, died.

Here we see people using their culture. Members of two different groups observed the same event but their interpretations were drastically different. The crowd used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the behavior of the policemen as cruel and (b) to act on the woman’s behalf to put a stop to what they perceived as brutality. They had acquired the cultural principles for acting and interpreting things this way through a particular shared experience.

The policemen, on the other hand, used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the woman’s condition as heart failure and their own behavior as life-saving effort and (b) to give her cardiac massage and oxygen. They used artifacts like an oxygen mask and ambulance. Furthermore, they interpreted the actions of the crowd in an entirely different manner from how the crowd saw their own behavior. The two groups of people each had elaborate cultural rules for interpreting their experience and for acting in emergency situations, and the conflict arose, at least in part, because these cultural rules were so different.

Before making my main point, I would simply like to comment that the Spanish-speaking crowd’s response makes a lot more sense than it would first seem. It makes a lot of sense even on the assumption that the crowd did in fact understand the police officer’s explanation that they “apparently did not understand.” What the article explicitly states is that the police officers were using an oxygen mask, and that is a device that needs to be pressed against a person’s face and necessarily cover the same parts of a person’s face one would cover to try to cause suffocation. If you’re not expecting something like that, it looks awfully strange. Furthermore, although I do not know whether this actually happened, it is standard operating procedure to many emergency medical technicians and paramedics who perform CPR to cut off the person’s top completely, palpate to the best place to place one’s hands, and mark the spot with a ball-point pen. This may or may not have happened, but if it did, it is appropriate enough for neighbors to view it as an extreme indignity. Lastly, although today’s best practices in CPR are more forceful than was reccommended in the past, “heart massage” is a technical term that does not refer to anything like softly kneading a friend’s shoulder. The people I have met who do CPR regularly say they crack ribs all the time: cracking ribs may not be desirable on its own, but if a responder is doing good CPR with enough force to be effective, breaking a patient’s ribs is considered entirely normal and not a red flag that CPR is being done inappropriately. Furthermore, the woman’s age of 59 raises the question of osteoporosis. Racism is almost certainly a factor in the community’s memories; the community had quite probable stories circulating of bad treatment by police officers and possible police brutality. I know that the police tried to explain what they were doing, but if I saw police apparently trying to suffocate a member of our community, possibly saw an offensive indignity in that a senior’s shirt and underwear had been cut away, and saw an officer keep on forcefully shoving down on her chest and probably heard ribs crackling with every shove, it would take quite some believing, almost a reprehensible gullibility, to believe the other officers who tried to explain, “No, really, we’re trying to help her!”

(And, for reasons below, I would be very wary of saying that she probably would have survived if only the crowd hadn’t intervened.)

I may pause to note that neither group, nor apparently the authors of the newspaper article or anthropology text, appears to grasp how the situation would be viewed by a doctor. “Heart massage” is now more commonly known as “Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation,” or CPR, recuscitation being an otherwise obscure synonym for resurrection or returning from the dead: in French religious language, for instance, resuscitation is the term one uses for Christ returning to life after death on a cross. There is, to the purist, some fundamental confusion in the marketing-style slogan, “CPR saves lives.” Clinically and legally, death occurs when a person’s heart stops beating. If a person is still alive, and if there is any chance of saving the person’s life, then CPR is both premature and inappropriate.

Once a person enters a state of “cardiac arrest,” meaning death, then there might be a possibility of getting that person back by cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, even if that is a long shot. CPR at its very best is a third as effective as a heart beating normally, and even under ideal conditions can slow deterioration to give the emergency room perhaps a 5% to 10% chance of getting the person back. And that is assuming that ideal conditions are possible: in reality ideal conditions don’t happen. Though most people giving CPR do not have to deal with a crowd interpreting their efforts as assault, hoping to deliver perfect CPR is like hoping to become a good enough coder that one need not contend with debugging: Eric Raymond implicitly showed great maturity as a programmer by saying he was dumbfounded when his first attempt at Python metaprogramming worked without debugging. The person who does CPR in a public setting will contend not only with the difficulties of CPR itself, but an “uh-oh squad,” bystanders who second-guess one’s efforts and create a social dynamic like that of giving a speech to an audience of hecklers.

Now there is no question of blows or physical restraint when it comes to the idea of CPR or cardiac massage as a way to save lives that is apparently shared by the newspaper article author, the anthropology author, and possibly the police, and the medical view that CPR is “only indicated in the case of cardiac arrest,” meaning that it is premature and inappropriate unless a person has already died, but can preserve a remote chance of getting a patient back after the patient has crossed the threshold of clinical death. Emergency room doctors who view CPR as slowing deterioration and holding onto a slender chance of getting someone back will be quite grateful for CPR performed by police officers and other members of the general public who view CPR as a skill which saves lives. But the understanding is still fundamentally different, and differences like this come up in how computer interfaces are understood: differences you will want and need to appreciate.

Applying this foundation to usability

The core of usability testing is designing some sample tasks, asking users to do them, and observe, as a fly on the wall, without helping. If you can record sessions, great; if not, a notepad, notebook, or netbook works well. (The advantage of recording sessions is that almost invariably people will say, “There’s no way the user could have that much trouble with our design,” and a five-minute video of a user looking everywhere on the page but where users are intended to look, is worth a thousand arguments.) Usually studying five users is sufficient.

There is a saying in customer service of, “The customer is always right.” One may read the cautionary tale of a salesperson who kept on winning arguments with customers and somehow never closed a sale. And the principle is very simple. A customer who is wrong is to be treated as a valued customer as well as a customer who is right, and whether your customer is right or wrong, you treat each customer as a valued customer. Unless you are talking about an abusive customer, in which case it is appropriate to draw a line in the sand, you don’t send a message of “I’m right, you’re wrong.”

That’s not what I am talking about when I say, “The user is always right.” Anyone who teaches programmers or remembers what it was like to begin programming remembers hearing, “There’s no way the computer can be right! The computer has to be running my code wrong, or the compiler isn’t working right!” And it is a slow and at times painful lesson that the computer is in fact (almost) always right, that no matter how right your code seems, or how certain you are, if your code is not working, it is because you did something you did not intend, and your code will begin working when you find out how your code does not obviously say what you think it does, and adjust that part of your code. Bugs in libraries and (more rarely) compilers and interpreters do exist, but one important threshold has been crossed when a programmer stops blaming the tool for confusing bugs and begins to take responsibility personally.

And in the same sense that the computer is always right, and not the sense that the customer is always right, the user is always right about how users behave. If the user interacts with the user interface and does something counterproductive, this means the same sort of thing as code doing something counterproductive if it’s been compiled. The user, who is always right, has identified an area where the interface needs improvement. The user should be regarded as “always right” just as the computer should be regarded as “always right,” and when the user is wrong, that’s good information about where the user interface has problems.

I could say that the only thing we really need to do at all is observe the user. But observing the user includes a major challenge: it includes the major task of grasping things that violate our assumptions. The task is something like first encountering how JavaScript’s support for object-oriented programming includes objects and inheritance, but without classes, first coming to a scripting language and asking, “When does integer overflow occur?” and being told, “Your question does have an answer, but it matters less than you might think,” or the experience of a novice programmer who posted to a forum, “How do I turn off all the annoying compiler warnings I’m getting?” and was extremely frustrated to have more than one guru say, “You want to beg your compiler to give you as many warnings as you can get, and treat all warnings as errors.”

It was a deft move for Google to give Chrome a single search and URL bar, but the main reason may not be the one you think. Searching was heavily enough used that Firefox made life easier for many users by adding a second bar to the right of the search bar so that we could search without first pulling up the Google homepage; for heavy users, simplifying the URL bar and the search bar into one full-width piece is the next refinement. But this is not the main reason why it was deft for Google to give Chrome a unified search/URL bar, or at very least not the only reason.

My own experience helping others out with their computers has revealed that something obvious to us has been absolutely nonexistent in their minds. Perhaps you have had the experience, too, of telling someone to enter something in a page’s text field, and they start typing it in the URL bar, or vice versa typing a URL into a page’s search field. What this unearths is that something that is patently obvious to web designers is not obvious to many web users: “Here is an important, impenetrable dividing line, and all the chrome above that line belongs to the browser, and everything below that line (above the bottom chrome, and excluding any scrollbars) belongs to the website.” This division of labor is obvious enough to most web designers that only experience could teach them that there are some people who don’t understand it. But the real world has many users who do not have any such concept, and behaviors like typing search terms in the URL bar (years before Chrome was available) are clues to “This is something that’s out there.”

And if you think, “Ok, but users are more sophisticated now,” you might go through your website’s search logs and see how many website addresses you can see. It won’t be nearly as many as ordinary search terms, but have you ever wondered where the addresses to MySpace and porn sites in your search logs come from?

Culture shock is a fundamental reality of when things go contrary to your expectations; most of us experience small amounts of culture shock in our day-to-day living and much greater amounts if we travel to another country or do something else. The three examples given above, of classless objects in JavaScript, integer overflow in scripting languages as not terribly important, and asking for a more draconian handling of warnings are examples of culture shock in relation to technologies. As a rule of thumb, if you aren’t experiencing culture shock from your user observations, you’re not deriving full benefit from them, and you don’t understand your users well enough to make the fullest improvements to the design. As a rule of thumb, if you aren’t experiencing culture shock from your user observations, that’s because you’re taking a shower with your raincoat on.

It’s just like (hard) debugging

I would like to make one closing parallel to debugging. There are several types of debugging I am not talking about: for instance, a missing close parenthesis causes an immediate error that makes it fairly quick work to find out what is wrong and what line of code it is. A traceback can also provide an excellent starting point for quick and effective debugging. Although debugging a failed unit test may not be quite so easy, a unit test is not just a tool to say that something is wrong, somewhere; it is a tool that should point a finger, and usually narrow the search field significantly. And many other bugs that are neither syntax errors nor resolved with the help of unit tests are still easy enough to fix that we need not be terribly aware of them; when we think of debugging we may only think of the few hard bugs rather than the majority of bugs which better programmers resolve without really thinking about it, like we turn on light switches on entering a darkened room, or unzip a coat outdoors when the day warms up, without giving the matter too much conscious thought or vividly remembering that we do this. (This is, incidentally, somewhat of an ethnographic observation of good programmers.)

What I am talking about, as hard bugs, are bugs where you go through every investigative tool you can think of, and still cannot pin down what is going on. (This may include a relatively small proportion of bugs that also generate tracebacks or unit test failures.) Observing the bug seems like observing, not a miniature ship in a bottle, but a ship in a seamless glass sphere: there’s no way you can tell that the ship could have gotten in there, but it is quite clear that the ship in fact is in a glass container that has no openings that you can imagine the ship getting in through.

Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting sound in science is not, ‘Eureka!’ [I’ve found it!], but ‘That’s funny,'” and the history of science bears him out. Today, X-rays are widely known among scientifically literate people to be a very high-energy, short-wavelength radiation belonging to the same spectrum as visible light, but it was not always so; the name ‘X-rays’ is itself a holdover from when they were a fascinating and mysterious mystery, with the ‘X’ in ‘X’-rays referring to something unknown. It was known that they were radiation of some sort, but they passed through some opaque material and in general did not fit into anything people had a conceptual place for.

In the middle of efforts to understand this mystery, there was one physicist who stumbled upon a golden clue that X-rays might be something like light: he left unexposed photographic plates near a source of X-rays, and upon using and developing them, observed that they had all been partially exposed. His response, however, was to contact the photographic supply company and demand that they replace the photographic plates as defective. As Winston Churchill observed, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”

In debugging, hard bugs, the kind that remain unresolved after we have investigated all the usual suspects, are rarely solved because we go looking for the right error and find exactly what we expected to find. With the analogy of the ship in the sphere, it is more like deciding there has to be some kind of concealed seam from gluing or otherwise sealing an aperture big enough to allow the ship to enter, at least in pieces, and after looking the glasswork over, using magnifying glasses and lights, and still finding no trace of a seam, you stop ignoring something you had noticed along the way: the ship itself appeared surprisingly glossy. When you stop to look at the ship for a second, you realize that it is not made of the wood and cloth you expected (and that it appears to be at first glance), but as far as you can tell is shaped out of colored glass. And, after doing a little more research, you learn of a glassblower who makes colored glass ships and forms seamless glass spheres around them. In this case, you were not wrong in saying there was no seam; there is still no way that such a thing could have been crafted at room temperature, and there is in fact no ultra-subtle seam that you failed to notice in our efforts to find the seam to an aperture through which the ship could have been inserted at room temperature, even in pieces. But that’s not the point. The ship in a globe was made at glassblower’s temperatures, and there it is possible to create a seamless sphere around a colored glass ship.

Hard bugs are debugged successfully when you learn to stop when you stumble over the truth. And the same is true in the anthropological side of usability techniques: some things you can know to look for, and find, but the much more important competency is to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth, and stop and pay attention to something you don’t know to look for.

Almost all of the difference between doing user observation badly and doing it well hinges on learning to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth.

Lessons from Other Areas

Live cross-cultural encounters

Learning and observing in cross-cultural encounters is an excellent way to learn how to pick up cues the way a user interface developer needs to. There are two basic cross-cultural encounters I recommend as particularly valuable. The first of these, as it takes shape in the U.S., is to spend time volunteering with an English as a Second Language program and tutor on computer basics. Or find out if you can tutor in classes at your local library. (If possible, work in an adult computer class that has seniors and not too many young people.) This may or may not be the most pleasant experience, but it is some of the most valuable. I remember one experience where I was working with a Sudanese refugee, quite possibly an escapee of the genocide against Christians, who had just had his life uprooted under presumably traumatic circumstances and was learning to deal with living in the U.S. all at once, which would presumably be trauma in itself. I remember in particular one moment when we had very slowly typed a word or two in a word processor, and ticked the button to close a document, and were staring at a dialog box asking if we wanted to save the document before closing. And I remember a slow dawning realization that not only did he not know the quite substantial cultural concepts involved in recognizing that this was how culturally one asks a question, expecting an answer in the form of a click on one of two areas of the screen to answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Mu” (“Cancel”), but the question itself, “Do you want to save this document before closing?” was a question that did not exist at all in his culture, and even if I spoke his native language I would probably not be able to explain the question on terms that would make any sense to him. That was probably my most difficult teaching experience, and the one where I have the most doubts about whether I succeeded in teaching anything at all. But it was a profoundly valuable experience to me, and helped me see how things could “go without saying” to me but be baffling to others.

The second of these two cross-cultural encounters is whatever you already have. Few if any of us have no cross-cultural encounters; whether one is ethnically or (a)religiously a majority or a minority, an immigrant or a native citizen of one’s country, or considering face-to-face encounters or Internet connections, most of us have at least some experience in cross-cultural encounter. The differences are there; if you have learned something from cross-cultural encounter, the experience can help us more readily recognize the cues you need to recognize.

History

While I am wary of reducing history to merely an apparatus to understand the cultures of previous times, most historians arrive at a fairly deep understanding of a culture that is not their own, and may arrive at a sensitivity to the ways, all to easy to ignore, in which historical texts veto modern assumptions. There was an experiment in which a question concerning Abraham Lincoln and a number of historical primary sources were given to a number of elementary school teachers, plus one historian of Lincoln, and a historian whose specialties were unrelated. During the time of the experiment, the elementary school teachers started with a wrong conceptual framework that imposed today’s basic categories on the texts, and did not progress to anything better. The historian of Lincoln started with a highly accurate conceptual framework and very quickly arrived at the answer. But what is particularly interesting is the other historian, who was trained as a historian but had little directly relevant knowledge to Lincoln. He started with the same conceptual framework as the non-historians, but by the end he had corrected his framework to the point of reaching where the Lincoln historian had started.

This latter historian is perhaps the most interesting, not because he was initially right, but because he was self-correcting: even though his starting framework was no better than the schoolteachers, he was able enough to adjust his perspective from cues based on the text so that he reached the framework the Lincoln historian started with. And, one would imagine, the Lincoln historian would have had a similar self-correcting sensitivity to the texts had he been asked the same kind of question about a historical setting he did not initially understand.

Getting history right is relevant to us in two ways. First, one understands one, or perhaps many, other cultures more or less well. Second, when one trips over a clue that one is wrong, one stops and learns from it, instead of hoping it will go away. Both of these strengths are a powerful foundation to usability.

Old Books and Literature

Books can be a very good place to sharpen anthropological competencies through meeting other cultures. However, I might clear the ground of some distractions if it is tempting to say, “But I meet other cultures in all my favorite books! I’m an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy.”

All science fiction is not created equal in terms of cultural encounter. There is a marked difference between reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and watching Star Trek. Heinlein understood both culture and culture shock, and though his book only treats one alien culture, it is written to create culture shock in the reader, and challenge us in assumptions we didn’t know we had. “Whaaa—? They can’t do that!” is a normal and intended reaction to several parts of the book. In Star Trek, there are many races, but culture shock in the viewer is almost nonexistent even when the plot is intended to surprise. To put it more pointedly, the average American’s culture shock from watching years of Star Trek is probably much less than the average American student’s culture shock from a few months’ experience in a foreign exchange program, perhaps less than the culture shock in the first month of that program. By comparison with a live encounter with another human culture, the alien races in Star Trek have less their own alien cultures than a shared personality profile we can already relate to even when we don’t like it.

Likewise, not all fantasy is created equal. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis were both Oxford-educated medievalists who knew medieval literature intimately. The genre of fantasy that appeared in their wake, if you have seriously read medieval literature, seems by comparison like the opening rant in the movie Dungeons & Dragons, where a supposedly medieval character gives an impassioned “Miss America” speech about how horrible it is that the realm’s government is unlike a U.S.-style democracy. Today’s genre fantasy reads like the story of Westerners from our time who happen to be wearing armor; by contrast, in The Chronicles of Narnia some of the characters are indeed from the twentieth century, but in terms of how the story is put together there is something a bit medieval, and not individualist, about their characterization.

If our cultures’ science fiction and fantasy are not the best place to be challenged by another encounter, and to develop that kind of sensitivity, where can we go? One obvious response is to look to be challenged by books like the Dao De Jing and the Bhagavad-Gita. Those are both excellent places to look to be challenged, but if we assume that we can be challenged by the Bhagavad-Gita but not Plato, we are selling both of them short. The image in Plato of climbing out of the cave with its shadows and looking at the sun is something that a Hindu commentator on the Bhagavad-Gita can quite easily relate to, and in a certain sense Plato has more in common with that kind of Hinduism than with his disciple Aristotle.

What does it look like to read a text to see what one can pick up culturally? Consider the following text:

QUANTUM THEORY, THE. As recently as the opening years of the present century the vast majority of physicists still regarded Newton’s dynamical laws as something established for all time. And they were not without solid grounds for this faith. Many phenomena were indeed known, chiefly those which may be classed under the heading radiation, e.g. black body radiation and line spectra, which refused to accommodate themselves to any sort of theory founded on Newtonian principles; but it was generally believed that such phenomena would, sooner or later, be completely accounted for without any departure from the classical principles of physics. Even the theory of relativity developed by Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski and their successors was regarded only as a widening or generalization of the Newtonian basis of physics. It was the culmination of classical physical theory. These phenomena we now believe, cannot be accounted for on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian. The first act of sacrilege was committed by Max Planck, until recently professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, about the end of the year 1900, when he initiated the quantum theory. One of the problems engaging the attention of physicists during the closing years of the last century was that of the radiation from a black body…

The reconciliation of these two aspects of the phenomenon, namely the independence of the energy of the ejected photo-electrons and the intensity, on the one hand, and the wave character of the radiation on the other, constitutes one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered…

Now I would like to make a couple of points. I could, for instance, have chosen an interminable fight narrative from a medieval Arthurian legend to say, “We look on Arthurian legends as mysterious tales of wonder. Did you know that a large portion of those legends is actually quite dull to the modern reader?” Some readers may be wondering, “This is a scientific article, not a cultural area where anything goes.” But, even if science is not a domain where anything goes, there are cultural issues here, and it may be possible to date the article by cultural markers as well as by values given for physical constants (Avogadro’s number appears to be given as 6.06 * 10^23, not today’s 6.022 * 10^23, and the unit of electrical charge is reported to have current values consistent with initial measurements, despite the fact that the initial reported experimental value was erroneous and subsequent experimenters fudged until it was found acceptable to report what is now believed to be the correct value.)

In the quoted text, there are two significant markers that date the text as showing significant cultural difference from how things are viewed today.

A physicist or philosopher today would say that Newtonian physics, Einsteinian physics, quantum physics, and for that matter superstring theory are fundamentally irreconcilable on an ontological plane but happen to predict the same behaviors for the kind of experiments one would expect of a high school physics lab: the predicted results for each of these theories are vastly smaller than even a top-notch experimental physicist doing high school experiments could possibly observe. But the reasons behind those differences are irreconcilable, like the difference between saying “You see this OS behavior because it is running natively on your computer” and “You see this OS behavior because it is being emulated under virtualization with several levels of indirection that are extremely slippery to understand.” The behavior predicted is interchangeable, but the reasons proposed for the behavior are fundamentally irreconcilable. Furthermore, this is not just true if one compares quantum physics with Einsteinian or Newtonian physics; it is also true if one compares Einsteinian with Newtonian physics: to today’s take on things, it is a bit astonishing to say, “on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian.” The usual way of presenting things in a physics class today is to present Einstein’s theory of relativity as the first in a stream of foundational upsets after Newton reigned unchallenged and apparently eternally established for centuries. Today we would expect to need to dig a bit to find more examples of Einstein’s theory referred to as a further expansion developing Newton, which should still be considered “classical physical theory.”

The second quoted paragraph refers to how light (and, it may be mentioned, practically everything else as seen in quantum theory) behaves as a particle when treated in some ways and as a wave as treated in others. This duality has since hit the rumor mill well enough that a favorite illustration from science in theology programs is how light exists as both a particle and a wave, which reflects the extent to which the duality of light as particle and wave remains unresolved but is no longer regarded as, “one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered.”

Our point is not to deride the article, which is written at a higher level of sophistication and detail than, for instance, the Wikipedia. Apart from its certitude in the existence of an “aether,” slightly surprising in light of the fact that the Michelson-Morley experiment dates to 1887 and the article refers to 1900 as a past year, its picture of quantum physics portrays the same core science one would expect of a physics text today. But, even in physics, which is not in any sense a field where just anything goes, culture is present, and for that matter in this article the cultural cues alone are most likely sufficient for an historian of 20th century physics to closely date it.

This kind of cue is what you can practice learning in reading old books, and this kind of cue is what you need to be able to pick up in observing for good user interface development.

The way you observe that a user doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you is by the same kind of cue that can clue you in that a text doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you.

The last other area: Whatever you have

Whatever else you have is probably a resource you can draw on. Do you love birding? Birding is a hobby of observation. Do you do martial arts, for instance? A common theme in martial arts is harmony between opponents, and if you can attune yourself to a sparring partner, you should be able to attune yourself to a user. Comedy or performing arts? You’re not a good comedian if you’re insensitive to your audience. Have you made a lot of mistakes, and learned from them, or at least started to learn? Wonderful news! (Are you an amateur or professional anthropologist? That one doesn’t need explaining!) There is some connection between any two areas of life; let other skill support and strengthen your usability work.

Understanding the User

A lesson from optimization

Knuth said, for the novice programmer, “Don’t optimize,” and to experts only, “Optimize later.” Always writing for optimization is a recipe for bad, unreadable code, and for that matter slow code, compared to code written for clarity that is later optimized using that clarity. And Knuth also said, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

In one production system I was working on, I wrote one search with the realization that the implementation I was using was extremely inefficient, and had to deliberately refrain from optimizing it, to leave for later. When the whole system was put together, it took a couple of seconds longer than was acceptable, and I began mentally gearing up to optimize the inefficient search. Before doing so, I did some testing, and found to my surprise that my inefficient search implementation took very little time to run, and when I began mapping things out, found the root problem. I had called a poorly chosen method, and with it made a purely preventable network call, and that network call took a few seconds. When that problem was fixed, the remaining code ran at acceptably fast times for even the largest accounts.

This story is my own version of something that keeps on being retold in the programming literature: “Our system was running slowly, and we had reasonable ideas about what was going on here, but our reasonable ideas were wrong. We didn’t know what the real problem was until we dug into some observation.”

This basic lesson in optimization is a fundamental phenomenon in usability as well. We will have reasonable ideas about what the usability issues are, and our reasonable ideas will be wrong. We won’t know what the real issues are until we dig into some observation.

What’s wrong with scratching an itch, or, you are not your user

The open source community is largely driven by scratching itches, but scratching a programmer’s itch is a terrible way to approach user interface design.

The story is told of a program used in an office where a popup window appeared and said, “Type mismatch.” And the secretary obediently typed M-I-S-M-A-T-C-H, a perfectly appropriate user response to an inappropriate error message. (This kind of thing shows up in many more subtle ways, some of which are not so obviously wrong.)

Designing a user interface that makes sense to someone who understands its inner workings, and designing a user interface that makes sense to its intended audience, are not the same thing. A mechanic’s understanding of how a car starts is very elaborate and detailed, but a user should be able to get by thinking, “I turn the key and press the gas, and the car starts” without necessarily thinking anything about what’s under the hood. If users need to understand what’s under the hood to operate the car, the car needs improvement.

Worst practices from the jargon file

The jargon file defines the extremely pejorative “PEBKAC” as:

[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: ‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC’. See also ID10T. Compare pilot error, UBD.

And the particular example is unfortunately revealing of an attitude user interface people need to avoid like the plague.

It is common enough in computer programs to have modal dialog boxes; the humble JavaScript alert(“Hello, world!”); is one of innumerable ways to get them. And what they mean from an ordinary nontechnical user perspective is, “A box popped up, probably one that you don’t want and may not understand. What is even more annoying is that it is blocking your work; you can’t continue what you are doing until you get rid of it.” And so an entirely appropriate way to deal with these annoyances is get rid of them as quickly as possible.

The example given in the jargon file’s definition of “PEBKAC” is, “‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept canceling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.'” For a long time, at least, attempting to print from a GUI gave something that looked like a modal dialog box, but for this “modal dialog lookalike”, there is one important difference in behavior. When you click on the button to make it go away, it destroys your print job.

This is not a case of a problem existing between the user’s keyboard and chair.

It is a case of a problem existing between the user interface designer’s keyboard and chair. PEBKAC.

To pick on the jargon file a little more, “Drool-proof paper” is defined as:

Documentation that has been obsessively dumbed down, to the point where only a cretin could bear to read it, is said to have succumbed to the “drool-proof paper syndrome” or to have been “written on drool-proof paper”. For example, this is an actual quote from Apple Computer’s LaserWriter manual: “Do not expose your LaserWriter to open fire or flame.”

Let’s ignore the fact that this sounds less like a technical writer trying to be easy to understand, than corporate legal counsel trying to ward off ambulance chasers.

There is a very user-hostile attitude here, the basic idea that if your system is too difficult for your users to understand, the users must be too stupid, and making something user-friendly is a matter of stretching to meet people you shouldn’t have to cater to. Stories and terms like this circulate among programmers. I might suggest that terms like these, for your software’s audience, are little, if any, better than a racial slur. They reflect an attitude we don’t need.

Python and usability

You do not really understand Python until you understand something about usability as it appears in Python. Usability is the soul of ‘Pythonic’.

It’s not all about the computer!

There is something genuinely different about Python, and to explain it I would like to discuss the advantages of C.

If you want to nano-optimize every ounce of performance you can get, there is little serious competition to C. You can write assembler for different platforms, or write in a C++ that is multiparadigm like Python and have some parts of your program use high-level features like objects, templates, and operator overloading, while still writing almost unadulterated C for parts that are performance-critical. And the group of programmers that “vote with their keyboards” for using C this way, includes Guido van Rossum, who created Python. The first and canonical Python implementation is written in C, and a Pythonista underscoring the point that Python’s switch statement is a very efficient dictionary will explain that Python’s dictionary is implemented in tightly optimized C.

But this kind of advantage comes at a price. In the canonical list of ways to shoot yourself in the foot in different programming languages, C is “for people who want to load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.” In one Python forum, a wannabe 133t hax0r asked how to write a buffer overflow in Python, and a wry Pythonista replied apologetically: “We’re sorry, but Python doesn’t support that feature.” But C does support the “feature” of buffer overflows; its default string handling never leaves home without it. With manual memory management and manual handling of pointers, C also supports “features” including all kinds of memory leaks and subtle pointer errors that can be extremely difficult to debug. Python closes this Pandora’s box, although Python is hardly the only language with the wisdom to do so. Python, PHP, Ruby, Perl, Tcl, and Java all close the Pandora’s box that must be wide open if you are to have tightly optimized C.

C has been called a language that combines the power of using assembler with the ease of using assembler, and I know of no compiled language that surpasses C for power over bare metal, or for corresponding possibilities for tight optimization. However, this is not the only way to keep score. Python keeps score by another metric: programmer productivity.

The one overriding concern motivating decisions in Python is not how you can get the tightest control over the computer’s productivity. It’s how to let the programmer be most productive, and it has been said of this relentless pursuit of programmer productivity that capital sentences are passed with less thorough deliberation than obscure Python features. And if you’ve used Python, the difference you have experienced is precisely because of this one overriding concern, this relentless pursuit. The people in charge of Python have decided that Python isn’t about what to do to optimize the computer; it’s about what you do to empower the programmer.

If you’re interested in usability, you have a good working example of usability to look at. To put Python’s strength a little differently, Python is a language where the one overriding concern and relentless pursuit is usability for you, the programmer. If you are working on usability, you are working to give end-users the same kind of thing that Python gives you. You are making a product more Pythonic to use, as opposed to giving the more C-like experience of an interface that lets users load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.

Usability is about how to go from giving C user interfaces, to giving Pythonic user interfaces.

“Social Antibodies” Needed: A Request of Orthodox Clergy

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

Some time ago, a pastor contacted me and asked permission to quote one of my poems. We’ve been in contact at least occasionally, and he sent me an email newsletter that left me asking him for permission to quote.

Let me cite the article in full (©2014 Pastor Vince Homan, used by very gracious permission):

When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise. Proverbs 10:19

I recently violated a longstanding position I have held; to avoid all further interaction with social media, particularly Facebook. It wasn’t necessarily because of any moral high ground; it was more because I had already mastered e-mail and was satisfied with my online accomplishments. In addition, I didn’t have any additional time or interest to keep up with pithy little sayings, videos, cartoons, social life, or even cute kiddie pictures. But now I am happily in the fold of Facebook users (particularly if there is a picture of one of my grandbabies on it). In addition, it has allowed me to discover that there are literally dozens of people who are just waiting to be my friends. However, the real reason I’m on Facebook is work related. Thanks to the good work done by a few of our church members; both of our churches have excellent Facebook pages. In order to access those pages, I needed an account, so—here I am. And though all seems well with the world of Facebook, I am discovering that it is not always the case. For all the “warm fuzzies,” and catching up with friends and family it offers … there is also a dark side.

At a recent continuing education event I attended, the speaker presented some dire consequences to uninhibited use of social media. He reported that social media had replaced money as the number one contributor to marriage problems. He said it wasn’t so much affairs that online relationships led to; rather it was the persistent flirting that broke down barriers and hedges, which once protected the marriage. Such interaction often led to a downward spiral, corrupting and compromising the marriage vow. One in five divorces involves the social networking site Facebook, according to a new survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. A staggering 80% of divorce lawyers have also reported a spike in the number of cases that use social media for evidence of cheating, with Facebook by far the biggest offender. Flirty messages and and photographs found on Facebook are increasingly being cited as proof of unreasonable behavior or irreconcilable differences. Many cases revolve around social media users who get back in touch with old flames they hadn’t heard from in many years.

PBS recently hosted a webinar, This Emotional Life, about the internet’s impact on relationship and marriage.[i] One of the panelists, Theresa Bochard, explored the issue a bit farther in an article originally published on PsychCentral.com. She said that after reading hundreds of comments and emails from people who have been involved in online relationships or emotional affairs as well as the responses on several discussion boards, she concluded that while the internet and social media can foster intimacy in a marriage, it seems to do more harm than good. She reported that an astounding 90% of opposite-sex online relationships were damaging to the marriage. Facebook affairs are threatening healthy couples too.

“I have suggested to myself to write a thank you note to the inventors of Facebook and Myspace because they have been responsible for a significant percentage of my income,” says marriage counselor Dr. Dennis Boike. He’s not kidding. “I’m having people say I never would have expected me to do this. It’s in the privacy of my computer. I’m not going out anywhere, I’m not dressing for it, I’m not smelling of another’s perfume. There are no tell-tale signs except my computer record.” But a new study suggests Facebook can also help disconnect you from your better half. The site, which boasts more than 350 million active users, is mentioned in over 20% of divorce petitions, according to Divorce-Online.

Prominent Houston divorce attorney Bucky Allshouse can understand why. “It’s really kind of shocking what people put on Facebook,” says Allshouse. Perhaps it’s not so shocking that the social networking site can essentially pour kerosene on “old flames.” Most online relationships start out benign: an email from a person you knew in college, friending an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend on Facebook (as suggested by Facebook: “people you might know”), getting to know a co-worker or acquaintance better online. But the relationship can take a dangerous turn very quickly if you’re not careful and even more easily if you are doing most of the talking behind a computer.

We have no non-verbals with which to interpret people’s conversation when we communicate online. What we say can be misinterpreted and come off in a way we don’t intend. Or worse, we purposely allow our conversation to drift into an unhealthy area, where we put out “feelers” to see if the person we are communicating with will do the same. We will text things to people that would make us blush if we said them in person. All too often the end result is flirting, compromising our values, and allowing the secrecy of social media to sweep us off our feet and into a quagmire of social dysfunction. This is not a victimless choice. Many times, inappropriate conversations through social media lead to great pain with children, spouses, parents, and friends.

One such instance occurred when Jonathan found Sharon on Facebook, 20 years after he dumped her one week after their high school prom. She had never married, while he had and was also the father of two teenagers. During months of emailing and texting, Sharon proved a sympathetic listener to his sense of isolation and loneliness within his own marriage. He found they could talk easily, picking up with the friendship they had had years before. They shared feelings they had never shared with others. After a few months, they decided to cross a few states and meet half way. Then, they talked of marriage. Shortly after, Jonathan went through with his divorce and months later he and Sharon married. Not surprisingly, and after only four months, they divorced. What happened? Fantasy was hit hard by reality. They went into a marriage without really spending time to know each other as they are today. Their romance was fueled by their history (as 18-year-olds) not their adult present. The romantic idea of reconnecting with an old lover, at a time Jonathan was unhappy in his marriage, was a recipe for danger.

In talking about it later, Jonathan realized he had not intended to start up a romance; he hadn’t intended to leave his marriage in the first place. As he and Sharon shared feelings, he felt more cared for by her than by his wife. When asked who raised the issue of marriage, he wasn’t sure. “Perhaps she pushed it, but I may have been just been musing something like, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we got married,’ and that led her to talk about marriage. I wonder if I led her on. Did I promise more than I had realized and then feel in love with my own fantasy?”[ii]

When we cross barriers that were intended to keep us safely within the parameters of our marriage vows, we start in internal conflict—one that attacks our emotional and mental center. Conversations with people of the opposite sex can lead to flirtations. Flirtations can lead to imaginations which lead to fixations … and there is a fine line between fixation and passion. Promiscuity is rarely a random act. It is pre-meditated. Something triggers our thoughts. And that something can be social media.

Christians must be wary of intimate conversations with people of the opposite sex; it is a trap that too many good people have been caught in. Paul wrote: “We are casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). It is good advice; cast down imaginations … take every thought captive, because it is often out of our imaginations and thoughts that bad choices are born. Jesus said something similar. Speaking to the disciples he warned, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). The battleground is not the computer or cell phone; it is the heart and the mind. But secretive messaging avenues like social media offers can help plant the seed for a battle that good people lose every day.

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist of 39 years and author of numerous relationship books, offers these social networking guidelines for married couples.

  1. Be clear about your agenda in contacting the other person.
  2. Limit the frequency of your time online. This sets a good boundary around the social networking contact.
  3. Don’t talk intimately. By not sharing intimacies with your correspondence, you reduce the chance of sending a message that you want a more intimate relationship.
  4. Let your spouse know with whom you are contacting. This openness makes it clear you have nothing to hide. (I would add, especially so if you are contacting a person of the opposite sex).[iii].
  5. Share your outgoing and received emails/texts with your spouse. Sharing communications removes any chance for jealousy or misunderstandings (I would add, share passwords with your spouse; give them full access to your social media sites).[iv].
  6. Do not meet in person unless your spouse is with you. Meeting up with old friends with your spouse by your side is a reminder that you two are a team and removes sending mixed messages to your former lover. This also reinforces the importance of fixing your marriage before playing with the flames of old flames.[v].

Jesus taught us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). Social media is a place that Scripture applies. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a person places their personal integrity and honor on the line in the marriage vow more than anything else in their life. And I believe marriage is under attack from multiple directions. I have officiated at many young couples weddings. I spend time with each one, warning them of the potential pitfalls and dangers; encouraging them to make their marriage a priority each day. Because I know the reality; many of the ones I marry won’t make it. It’s not because they are bad people or people of no character; but they get caught in a trap, and they can’t seem to find a way out. And I also know most of them deeply regret their decisions after the fallout of their choices turn to consequences.

Social media can be a wonderful thing. I love keeping in touch with family and looking at pictures of the grandbabies. Now our churches are using social media to share the gospel. But Christians should be wary of the potential dangers. We must keep up our barriers at all times. James warned, “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters” (James 1:14-16). Indeed, we must not be misled, rather be guided by the protective barriers God has placed around us; especially so if we are married. We must watch our words carefully and keep our thoughts captive. The sanctity of our marriage vow demands it.

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Vince


[i] http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/blogs/does-internet-promote-or-damage-marriage

[ii] http://www.hitchedmag.com/article.php?id=903

[iii] Parenthetical mine

[iv] Parenthetical mine

[v] http://www.hitchedmag.com/article.php?id=903

This article left me reeling.

In part, I wondered if my collection in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, was simply wrong. Or if someone might rightly say to me, “What you give in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is helpful up to a point, at least for someone with a similar background to yours. However, regular people need much more concrete guidance.” What struck me very concretely about Pastor Vince’s article is that it gave very practical advice on how married people can appropriately handle Facebook.

The article reminded me of remarks I’d seen by people interested in making computers that people can actually use that the Apple Macintosh was the first computer worth criticizing. Perhaps some detail of the guidance in the article above could be criticized: perhaps much of it should be criticized: but it may be the first article I’ve seen on the topic that was worth criticizing.

The concept of “social antibodies”: it’s not just Facebook

Paul Graham’s “The Acceleration of Addictiveness” is worth reading in full. (It’s also worth quoting in full, but he’s asked nicely that people link to it instead of reposting, which is a fair request. So I am linking to it even though I’d prefer to reproduce the whole article.)

The Acceleration of Addictiveness talks about a little bit bigger picture about things that are addictive. Though he mentions Facebook as something that’s even more addictive than television, he’s clear that the big picture is more than addictive little Facebook. Graham talks about a concept of “social antibodies” which I think is incredibly useful.

Decades ago, smoking cut through the US like a hot knife through butter. But, while smoking is still dangerous and there still continue to be new smokers, we no longer have glamour shots of celebrities holding cigarettes in some flashy, sophisticated, classy pose. Smoking is no longer “sexy;” over the past 20 years it has been seen as seedy, and “smoker” is not exacty the kindest thing to call someone. (I remember one friend commenting that he could think of a number of terms more polite than “smoker,” none of which were appropriate to the present company.) As a society, the US has developed social antibodies to smoking now.

There are many things that we need “social antibodies” for, and we keep developing new technologies, Facebook included, that need social antibodies. The six prescriptions in the quoted articles are essentially social antibodies for how to use Facebook without jeopardizing your marriage. They may seem harsh and excessively cautious, but I submit that they are easier to go through than divorce. Much easier. A piece of cake! And I quote Pastor Vince’s article because it’s something we need more of.

A helpful parallel to technology: Wine as an example

Simply not drinking alcoholic beverages is an option that I respect more as I think about it, but for the sake of this discussion, I will leave it on the side. I am interested in helpful parallels for “social antibodies” in moderation and restraint in using technology, and as much as I may respect people who do not drink, that option is not as interesting for my investigation. This is especially true because people living in my society assume that you are not abstaining from every technology that can cause trouble. So with a respectful note about not drinking alcohol at all, I want to look at social antibodies for moderate, temperate, and appropriate use of wine.

Wine and liquor slowly increased in strength in Western Europe, slowly enough that societies had at least the chance to build social antibodies. This makes for a marked contrast to escape through hard liquor among Native Americans, where hard liquor blew through decimated nations and peoples like escape through today’s street drugs would have blown through a Europe already coping with the combined effects of the bubonic plague and of barbarian invasions. Perhaps there are genetic differences affecting Native Americans and alcohol. A Native American friend told me that Native American blood can’t really cope with sugar, essentially unknown in Native American lands apart from some real exceptions like maple syrup. And lots of alcohol is worse than lots of sugar, even if some of us wince at the level of sugar and/or corn syrup in the main US industrial diet. (Even those of us not of Native American blood would do well to restrict our consumption of artificially concocted sugars.) But aside from the genetic question, introducing 80 proof whiskey to societies that did not know how to cope with beer would have been rough enough even if there were no genetic questions and no major external stresses on the societies. If there was something of a stereotype about Native Americans and whiskey, maybe part of that is because hard liquor that had been developed over centuries in the West appeared instanteously, under singularly unfortunate conditions, in societies that had not even the social antibodies to cope with even the weaker of beers.

I cite St. Cyril of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book Two, Chapter II: On Drinking as a model for approaching alcohol (and, by extension, a serious reference point in understanding moderate use of technology), with some reservations. The translation I link to is obscure and archaic, and if you can get past that, the individual prescriptions are the sort that would only be all kept (or, for that matter, mostly kept) by the sort of people who are filled with pride that they observe ancient canons more strictly than any canonical bishop. In other words, don’t try these directions at home unless you know you are in agreement with your priest or spiritual father. But the chapter of The Instructor on wine offers a priceless glimpse into real, live social antibodies on how to navigate dangerous waters. This is a live example of the sort of things we need. The book as a whole covers several topics, including clothing and boundaries between men and women, and they could serve as a model for pastoral literature to address the challenges offered to spiritual life today. Not specifically that online interactions between men and women introduce an element of danger. That element of danger has always been there, and always will be there. But online interactions frame things a little differently. This means that people with social antibodies that would show appropriate caution face-to-face might not recognize that you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online, or might not intuit exactly how you have to compensate when dealing with the opposite sex online.

I would like to close this section with a word about wine and why I drink it. The politically incorrect way of putting this point is to say that wine is something which literally and figuratively is not part of Islam. Islam works out, in stark relief, what it means to subtract the Incarnation from Christian faith. It means that not only has the Son of God not become incarnate in Christ, but all the more does God become incarnate in his children. It means that Holy Communion is just a symbol, and wine could absolutely, absolutely neverbecome the blood of God. Water is necessary and wine is not, as St. Clement tells us, but the Orthodox Church that regards Islam as a Christian heresy used fermented wine exclusively in the Eucharist, and condemned heretics’ use of pure water for the same purpose. And my reason for drinking a little wine is that wine has an elasticity that bears the meaning of Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into even more wine when wine ran out at a wedding where the guests were already pretty drunk, and it bears the meaning of the Holy Mysteries: few if any material substances are as pregnant with spiritual depth as wine. Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most dismal book in the entire Bible, and “Go, eat thy bread with mirth, and drink thy wine with a joyful heart” is close to being the only invitation to joy in the book. I do not say that this is a reason why people who have decided not to drink should change their mind. However, the theological motive to drink in Christianity comes from a higher plane than the admittedly very real reasons to be careful with alcohol, or else abstain. It’s deeper.

Is the iPhone really that cool?

The LinkedIn article Come With Me If You Want to Live – Why I Terminated My iPhone talked about how one family decided to get rid of their iPhones. The author talked about how the iPhone had taken over their lives. They suggested that trying to use their habit to use the iPhone in moderation was a nonstarter, however enticing it may look. And, on a sobering note, they had earlier tried to avoid using smartphones, even for work. And I am convinced they made the right choice: not having any smartphone use is better than addictive smartphone use, hands down. And while I am cautious about advertising responsible smartphone use to people who can’t live without their iPhone—the analogy drawn in the LinkedIn article was, “In hindsight, it’s like an alcoholic saying ‘I thought I could have it in the house and not drink it.'” But I have iPhone use which is defensible, at least in my opinion; I have drawn a boundary that is partly tacit and partly explicit, and while it can be criticized, it is a non-addictive use of the iPhone. I average less than one text a day; I do not compulsively check anything that’s out there. A few of the guidelines I found are,

  1. Limit the time you spend using your smartphone. The general Orthodox advice is to cut back a little at once so you never experience absolute shock, but you are always stretched a little bit outside your comfort zone. That may be a way to work down cell phone use, or it may not. If you compulsively reach for your smartphone, you might leave it in one room that you’re not always in. Put a boundary between yourself and the smartphone.
  2. Limit how often you check your cell phone unprovoked. When I’m not at work, I try to limit checking email to once per hour. Limit yourself to maybe once per hour, maybe more, maybe less, and restrain yourself.
  3. When you’re going to bed for the day, you’re done using your smartphone for the day. I am not strict in this; I will answer a call, but checking my iPhone, unprovoked, after my evening prayers or my bedtime is a no-no.
  4. Don’t use the iPhone as a drone that you need to have always going on. This includes music, texting, games, and apps, including Vince’s hero, Facebook. Perhaps the single biggest way that this violates Apple’s marketing proposition with the iPhone is that the iPhone is designed and marketed to be a drone that is always with us, a bit of ambient noise, delivering precisely what the Orthodox spiritual tradition, with works like The Ladder, tell us is something we don’t need.The iPhone’s marketing proposition is to deliver an intravenous drip of noise. The Orthodox Church’s Tradition tells us to wean ourself from noise.
  5. iPhones have “Do Not Disturb” mode. Use it. And be willing to make having “Do Not Disturb” as your default way of using the phone, and turn it off when you want “Please Interrupt Me” mode explicitly.
  6. Don’t multitask if you can at all avoid it. I remember reading one theology text which claimed as a lesson from computer science, because people can switch between several applications rapidly, that we should take this “lesson” to life and switch between several activities rapidly. And in a business world where multitasking has been considered an essential task, people are finding that multitasking is fool’s gold, an ineffective way of working that introduces a significant productivity tax where people could be doing much better. Smartphones make it trivially easy to multiask. Don’t, unless a situation calls for it.I note with some concern that the most I’ve been shocked at someone using an iPhone was when 12 and under kids were manipulating the iPhone, not to get something to done, but to activate the iPhone’s smooth animations. Looking over their shoulders in shock has felt like I was eavesdropping on a (non-chemical) acid trip. Children’s use of iPhones driven by slick animated transitions between applications are even more unhelpful than what the business world means by multitasking. (This feature of kids’ use of iPhones has made me kind of wish iPhones were not used by people under 18.)

Now I should post this with a clarification that this is, so to speak, pastoral advice to myself. I’ve found the basic approach helpful, and priests and spiritual fathers may draw on it if they choose in their best judgment to take something from it, but I have not been ordained or tonsured, and I would fall back on the maxim, “As always, ask your priest.” My reason to post them is to provide another reference point beyond those given to “social antibodies” in dealing with technology. With these antibodies, I hold the reins, or at least I hold the reins a little better than if I didn’t have these antibodies. But I am aware of something vampiric, something that sucks out energy and life, in even my more moderate use of some technologies, and I am a little wary of comparing my use of technology to moderate and sober use of alcohol. Appropriate use of alcohol can be good, and apart from the risk of drinking getting out of control, it is an overall positive. I’m leery of claiming the same for my use of technology, even if I’ve tried hard to hold the reins and even if I may do better than average. There is something that has been drained from me; there is something that has been sucked out of me. Maybe I am less harmed than others: but my use of technology has harmed me. I am wary of saying now, “I’ve found the solution.”

In dealing with another passion besides sexual sin, namely anger, people have started to develop “social antibodies:” as mentioned briefly by Vince Homan, we don’t have the important channels of people’s nonverbal communication, which flattens out half the picture. And when we are angry, we can flame people in emails where there is no human face staring back to us, only letters on the screen that seem so right—or perhaps not nearly right enough!—and write hurtful flames unlike anything we would dare to say in person, even to someone who hurt us deeply. And on that score, people seem to me to have developed social antibodies; I’ve been in lots of flamewars and given and received many unholy words, but I don’t remember doing that recently, or seeing flames wage out of control on many mailing lists, even if admittedly I don’t spend much time on mailing lists. But sexual dangers are not the only dangers online, and for online flaming, most of the people I deal with do not flame people like I did when I was first involved in online community. I’ve acquired some “social antibodies,” as have others I meet online. Some social antibodies have already developed, and the case is not desperate for us as a Church learning how to handle technology in the service of holy living instead of simply being a danger.

Pastoral guidance and literature needed

I visited Amazon to try to get a gauge on how much Orthodox pastoral resources about appropriate use of computers, mobile, internet, and technology were out there, a sort of The Instructor for technology today, and my search for orthodox internet found 109 resources from Christianity, Judaism, and the occult, none of which seemed to be about “How does an Orthodox Christian negotiate the social issues surrounding computers, smartphones, tablets, the Internet, apps, and technology?” Some other searches, such as orthodox pastoral internet, orthodox pastoral smartphone, and orthodox pastoral technology turned up nothing whatsoever. A search for “orthodox technology” turned up one page of search results with… several connected works of my own. Um, thanks, I think. I guess I’m an expert, or at least a resource, and even if I didn’t want to, I should probably make myself available to Orthodox clergy, with my spiritual father and bishop foremost. But this compliment to me, if it is such (maybe it means I’m off the rails) caught me quite off-guard; I was expecting to see at least some publications from people with pastoral authority and experience. But seeing as I’m the local expert, or at least a first author for this particular topic, I’ll briefly state my credentials. I have been an Orthodox Christian for a decade, so no longer a recent convert, have works on social dimensions of technology dating back as far as 1994, have two years of postgraduate theology under slightly silly conditions at Cambridge, and two more years under very silly conditions at a sort of “Monty Python teaches theology” PhD program (one Orthodox priest consoled me, “All of us went through that”), but did not complete the program. I grew up with computers back when my home computer access meant going to an orange and black terminal and dialing up a Dec MicroVAX on a 2400 (or less) baud modem, was on basically non-web social networks years before it became a buzzword, have worked with the web since before it went mainstream, much of it professionally. I’ve been bitten by some of the traps people are fighting with now. And I’m also kind of bright. So I guess I am, by default, a local expert, although I really think a responsible treatment of the issues raised here would see serious involvement from someone with pastoral qualifications and experience. I haven’t been tonsured, at least not yet, and perhaps not ever.

But I would ask priests reading this piece to consider a work on a sort of technological appendix to The Rudder, or maybe I shouldn’t say that because I have only barely sampled the ancient canons. But I would like to see ideally two pastoral works parallel to The Instructor, Book II: one for pastoral clergy use, and one for “the rest of us faithful.” When I was a lay parish representative at a diocesian conference, there was talk about appropriate use of the internet; Vladyka PETER read something that talked about the many legitimate benefits we have received from using computers, but talked about porn on the internet, which is a sewer I haven’t mentioned; he said that young people are spending hours per day looking at porn, and it’s more addictive than some street drugs, and he commented how porn has always been available, but you used to have to put on a disguise and a trenchcoat, and go leave your car in front of a store with the windows covered up, where now, it finds you and it comes free with a basic utility in the privacy of your home. And the biggest thing I can say about freedom from porn comes from the entry for porn in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology:

There is a story about a philosopher who was standing in a river when someone came to him. The philosopher asked the visitor, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under the water for a little while, and asked him the second time, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under water for what seemed an interminable time, and let him up and asked, “What do you want?” The visitor gasped and said, “Air!” The philosopher said, “When you want Truth the way you want air, you will find it.”

The same thing goes for freedom from the ever-darker chain called pornography, along with masturbation and the use of “ED” drugs to heighten thrills (which can cause nasty street drug-like effects [and a doomed search for the ultimate sexual thrill that decimates sexual satisfaction] even in marriage).

And I would like to suggest some guidelines for fighting Internet porn, quite possibly the most commonly confessed sin among young men today. Sexual sins are among the most easily forgiven: but they are a deep pit. So, in the interest of providing a “dartboard” draft that’s put out for people to shoot at. I am intentionally saying more rather than less because it’s easier for a pastoral conversation to select from a set of options than furnish arbitrarily more additional options. Here are several things I’d consider, both sacred and secular:

  1. If your right eye offends you, tear it out and throw it away from you: for it is better for you that one part of your body should die than that your whole body should be thrown into Hell.These words are not to be taken literally; if you tore out your right eye you would still be sinning with your left eye, and the Church considers that it was one of Origen’s errors to castrate himself. But this is a forceful way of stating a profound truth. There is an incredible freedom that comes, a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light, when you want purity the way you want “Air!“, and you apply a tourniquet as high up as you need to to experience freedom.Give your only computer power cable to a friend, for a time, because you can’t have that temptation in the house? That is really much better than the alternative. Have the local teenager turn off display of images in Chrome’s settings? That is really much better than the alternative. Webpages may look suddenly ugly, but not nearly as ugly as bondage to porn. Only check email at the library? That is really much better than the alternative. These tourniquets may be revised in pastoral conversation, but tearing out your right eye is much more free and much less painful than forever wanting to be free from addiction to porn, but also secretly hoping to give in to the present temptation; as the Blessed Augustine prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” There is a great deal of power in wanting purity now, and once you go slash-and-burn, the power is amazing.
  2. Install content-control software, such as Norton Family / Norton Family Premier, and have things set up so that only the woman of the house knows the password to make exceptions. There are legitimate needs for exceptions, and I remember being annoyed when I went to customize Ubuntu Christian Edition and finding that a site with all sorts of software to customize the appearance of Ubuntu was blocked, apparently because of a small sliver of soft porn in the wallpaper section of a truly massive site. There will be legitimate exceptions, but it cuts through a lot of self-deception if you get the exception by asking your wife.
  3. Don’t bother trying to find out how to disable porn mode “Incognito Mode” on your browser; set up a router to log who visits what websites. However much browser makers may tout themselves as being all for empowerment and freedom, they have refused to honor the many requests of men who want freedom from porn and parents who care for their children in many, many voices asking for a way to shut off porn mode. (Even if you found a pre-porn-mode browser version, it would place you at incredible information security risk, and not only because your browser is the #1 way to attack your computer.) But there is something else you should know.Routers exist that can log who visits what when, and if you know someone who is good with computers (or you can use paid technical support like the Geek Squad), have a router set up to provide a log of what computers visited what URLs so that the wife or parents know who is visiting what. The presence of a browser’s porn mode suddenly matters a lot less when a router records your browsing history whether or not the browser is in porn mode.
  4. Rein in your stomach. Eat less food. Fast. It is a classic observation in the Orthodox spiritual tradition that the appetites are tied: gluttony is a sort of “gateway drug” to sexual sin, and if you cut away at a full stomach, you necessarily undermine sexual sin and have an easier contest if you are not dealing with sexual temptation on top of a full stomach.And it has been my own experience that if I keep busy working, besides any issues about “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” the temptation to amuse and entertain myself with food is less. So that cuts off the temptation further upstream.If you eat only to nourish the body, it helps. Even if nourishing food tastes good, cutting out junk like corn-syrup-loaded soft drinks, or anything sold like potato chips in a bag instead of a meal, and moderating consumption of alcohol (none before going to bed; it doesn’t help), will help.
  5. When you are tempted, ask the prayers of St. John the Much-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves, perhaps by crossing yourself and saying, “St. John the Much-Suffering, pray to God for me.” In the Orthodox Church you may ask the prayers of any saint for any need, but St. John is a powerful intercessor against lust. That is part of why I asked Orthodox Byzantine Icons to hand-paint an icon of St. John for me: a little so I would have the benefit of the icon myself, and the real reason because I wanted Orthodox Byzantine Icons’s catalogue to make available the treasure of icons of St. John the Much-Suffering to the world, which they would.Other saints to ask for prayer include St. Mary of Egypt, St. Moses the Hungarian, St. Photina, St. Thais of Egypt, St. Pelagia the Former Courtesan, St. Zlata the New Martyr, St. Boniface, St. Aglaida, St. Eudocia, St. Thomais, St. Pelagia, St. Marcella, St. Basil of Mangazea, St. Niphon, and St. Joseph the Patriarch. (Taken from Prayers for Purity.)
  6. Buy and pray with a copy of Prayers for Purity when you are tempted, and when you have fallen. It is an excellent collection and helps when you know you should praying but words are not coming to mind.
  7. If you have been wounded, bring your wound to confession the next weekend. (And try to have a rule of going to church each week.)It can be powerful, when you are facing a temptation, not to want to confess the same sin again in a couple of days.But in parallel with this remember when a visitor asked a saintly monk what they did at the monastery, and the saintly monk answered, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” Fall down seven times and rise up eight: fall down seventy-seven times and rise up seventy-eight: keep on repenting for as long as you need to to achieve some freedom, and know that some saints before you have risen after falling very many times.
  8. , and use it. When you are tempted, keep repeating a prayer for one prayer rope, and then another, and another, if you need it. Pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or to St. John the Much-Suffering, “Holy Father John, pray to God for me,” or to St. Mary of Egypt, “Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for me.”
  9. Use the computer only when you have a specific purpose in mind, and not just to browse. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop; For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire perverts the innocent mind.; Do not look around in the streets of a city, or wander about in its deserted sections. Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire.Men’s roving sexual curiosity will find the worst-leading link on a page, and then another, and then another. Drop using roving curiosity when you are at a computer altogether; if you need to deal with boredom, ask your priest or spiritual father for guidance on how to fight the passion of boredom. But don’t use the Internet as a solution for boredom; that’s asking for trouble.
  10. Use a support group, if one is available in your area. If I were looking for a support group now, I would call Christian counseling centers in the area if available. Talking with other people who share the same struggle can help.
  11. Use XXXchurch.com, or at least explore their website. Their entire purpose is buying you your freedom from lust.
  12. Yearn for purity.In the homily A Pet Owner’s Rules, I wrote:

    God is a pet owner who has two rules, and only two rules. They are:

    1. I am your owner. Enjoy freely the food and water which I have provided for your good!
    2. Don’t drink out of the toilet.

    Lust is also drinking out of the toilet. Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe. It is a magic spell where suddenly nothing else is interesting, and after lust destroys the ability to enjoy anything else, lust destroys the ability to enjoy even lust. Proverbs says, “The adulterous woman”—today one might add, “and internet porn” to that—”in the beginning is as sweet as honey and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword.” Now this is talking about a lot more than pleasure, but it is talking about pleasure. Lust, a sin of pleasure, ends by destroying pleasure. It takes chastity to enjoy even lust.

    When we are in lust, God does not seem real to us. Rejecting lust allows us to start being re-sensitized to the beauty of God’s creation, to spiritual sweetness, to the lightness of Heavenly light. Lust may feel like you’re losing nothing but gaining everything, but try to be mindful of what you lose in lust.

And that’s my best stab at making a “dartboard,” meant so people will shoot at it and make something better, and more complete and less one-sided in navigating the pitfalls of technology. This isn’t the only trap out there—but it may be one of the worst.

I would suggest that we need a comprehensive—or at least somewhat comprehensive—set of guidelines for Orthodox use of technology. Such a work might not become dated as quickly as you may think; as I write in the resources section below, I unhesitantly cite a 1974 title as seriously relevant knowing full well that it makes no reference to individually owned computers or mobile devices: it’s a case of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Or, perhaps, two works: one for clergy with pastoral responsibilities, and one for those of us laity seeking our own guidance and salvation. I believe that today, we who have forms of property and wealth undreamed of when Christ gave one of the sternest Luddite warnings ever, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, can very easily use things that do not lead to spiritual health: sometimes like how Facebook can erode marriages that are well defended as regards old-school challenges.

The best I know, secondhand perhaps, is that today’s Church Fathers, on Mount Athos perhaps, are simply saying, “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!” What they want instead sounds like a liberal political-social experiment, where people who have grown up in an urban setting and know only how to navigate life there, will move en masse and form some sort of Amish-like rural communities. Or perhaps something else is envisioned: mass migration to monasteries? Given all that monasticism offers, it seems sad to me to receive the angelic image, of all reasons, only because that’s the only remaining option where you can live a sufficiently Luddite life. I have heard of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me saying that we should stop using recent technology at all. I have yet to hear of spiritual giants who incomparably excel me, and who live in places where technology is socially mandated, advise us to unplug completely. For that matter, I have yet to hear of any Orthodox clergy who live in places in the world where technology is socially mandated say, only and purely, “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!”

The Orthodox Church, or rather the Orthodox-Catholic Church, is really and truly Catholic, Catholic ultimately coming from the Greek kata, “with”, and holos, “whole”, meaning “with the whole”, meaning that the entirety of the Orthodox Church belongs to every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: the saints alike living and dead, the ranks of priesthood and the faithful, and marriage and monasticism in entirety belong to every Orthodox Christian, every Orthodox-Catholic Christian: and giving the advice “Unplug! Unplug! Unplug!” as the limits of where the Orthodox-Catholic Church’s God and salvation can reach, is very disappointing. It’s comparable to saying that only monastics can be saved.

Total avoidance of all electronic technology is guidance, but not appropriate guidance, and we need advice, somewhat like the advice that began on how to use Facebook, to what I wrote about iPhones or internet porn. A successful dartboard makes it easier to say “What you said about ___________ was wrong because ___________ and instead we should say ____________ because __________.” And I am trying to raise a question. I am trying to raise the question of how Orthodox may optimally use technology in furtherance of living the divine life.

Is astronomy about telescopes? No!

I would close with a quote about technology—or is it? Computer science giant Edgser Dijkstra said,

Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.

And how much more must Orthodox discussion of how to use technology ascetically be no more about technology than astronomy is about telescopes? The question is a question about spiritial discipline, of how the timeless and universal wisdom of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (volume 1, 2).

Resources for further study

Books

All the Orthodox classics, from the Bible on down. The task at hand is not to replace the Philokalia, but to faithfullyadapt the Philokalia (and/or the Seven Ecumenical Councils to a new medium, as it were. The principles of the Bible, the Philokalia, and the Seven Ecumenical Councils are simply not dated and simplydo not need to be improved. However, their application, I believe, needs to beextended. We need ancient canons and immemorial custom that has the weight of canon law: however ancient canons express a good deal more about face-to-face boundaries between men and women than boundaries in Facebook and on smartphones. We need guidance for all of these.

St. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor. I reference Book II and its chapter on wine as paradigms we might look too.

CJS Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. You don’t need to read all of my ebooks on the topic, and they overlap. This one I’m offering because I don’t know of anything better in (attempting to) address classic Orthodox spirituality to the question of ascetical use of technology.

Metropolitan Gregory (Postnikov), How to Live a Holy Life. This 1904 title gives concrete practical instruction. The technology is different from today’s technology, but it serves an interesting and valuable reference point for today.

Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander is a former advertising executive who came to believe things about television, with implications for computers and smartphones, For instance, he argues that sitting for hours seeing mainly the light of red, green, and blue fluorescent pixels is actually awfully creepy. Mander has no pretensions of being an Orthodox Christian, or an Orthodox Jew for that matter, sounded an alarm in his apostasy from advertising that is worth at least hearing out. (Related titles, good or bad, include The Plug-in Drug and Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Online Articles

(The only Orthodox articles I mention are my own. This is not by choice.)

Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addictiveness. The author of Hackers & Painters raises a concern that is not specifically Orthodox, but “just” human. (But Orthodoxy is really just humanity exercised properly.)

Jeff Graham, Come With Me If You Want to Live – Why I Terminated My iPhone. It contains what look like useful links.

Vince Homan, the newsletter article quoted above. I do not believe further comment is needed.

All the articles below except iPhones and Spirituality are included in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology (paperback, kindle).

CJS Hayward, Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis. This is a first attempt to approach a kind of writing common in the Philokalia on the topic of ascetical use of technology.

CJS Hayward, Veni, Vidi, Vomi: A Look at, “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”. My brother showed me a viral music video, “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, very effectively done. This is a conversation hinging on why I viewed the video with horror.

CJS Hayward, Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?. With slight, with minimal alterations, the most famous passage Plato wrote speaks volumes of our screens today.

CJS Hayward, iPhones and Spirituality. This piece is partly about appropriate use of smartphones and partly what we lose of real, human life when we lay the reins on the iPhone’s neck. It was originally a Toastmasters speech.

CJS Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. This is my most serious attempt at making an encompassing treatment to prepare people for different technologies. Pastor Vince’s article helped me realize it was too much of a do-it-yourself kit, appropriate as far as it goes, but not addressing what the proper pastoral application of the principles should be. And that is why I am writing a piece that will, I hope, provoke Orthodox clergy to expand our coverage in pastoral literature.

Read more of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology on Amazon!

Singularity

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Herodotus: And what say thou of these people? Why callest thou them the Singularity, Merlin?

John: Mine illuminèd name is John, and John shall ye call me each and every one.

Herodotus: But the Singularity is such as only a Merlin could have unravelled.

John: Perchance: but the world is one of which only an illuminèd one may speak aright. Call thou me as one illuminèd, if thou wouldst hear me speak.

Herodotus: Of illumination speakest thou. Thou sawest with the eye of the hawk: now seest thou with the eye of the eagle.

John: If that be, speak thou me as an eagle?

Herodotus: A point well taken, excellent John, excellent John. What speakest thou of the Singularity?

John: A realm untold, to speak is hard. But of an icon will I speak: inscribed were words:

‘Waitress, is this coffee or tea?’

‘What does it taste like?’

‘IT TASTES LIKE DIESEL FUEL.’

‘That’s the coffee. The tea tastes like transmission fluid.’

Herodotus: Upon what manner of veneration were this icon worshipped?

John: That were a matter right subtle, too far to tell.

Herodotus: And of the inscription? That too be subtle to grasp.

John: Like as a plant hath sap, so a subtle engine by their philosophy wrought which needeth diesel fuel and transmission fluid.

Herodotus: [laughs] Then ’twere a joke, a jape! ‘Tis well enough told!

John: You perceive it yet?

Herodotus: A joke, a jape indeed, of a fool who could not tell, two different plants were he not to taste of their sap! Well spoke! Well spoke!

John: Thou hast grasped it afault, my fair lord. For the subtle engine hath many different saps, no two alike.

Herodotus: And what ambrosia be in their saps?

John: Heaven save us! The saps be a right unnatural fare; their substance from rotted carcasses of monsters from aeons past, then by the wisdom of their philosophy transmogrified, of the subtle engine.

Herodotus: Then they are masters of Alchemy?

John: Masters of an offscouring of all Alchemy, of the lowest toe of that depravèd ascetical enterprise, chopped off, severed from even the limb, made hollow, and then growen beyond all reason, into the head of reason.

Herodotus: Let us leave off this and speak of the icon. The icon were for veneration of such subtle philosophy?

John: No wonder, no awe, greeteth he who regardest this icon and receive it as is wont.

Herodotus: As is wont?

John: As is wanton. For veneration and icons are forcèd secrets; so there is an antithesis of the sacra pagina, and upon its light pages the greatest pages come upon the most filled with lightness, the icons of a world that knoweth icons not.

Let me make another essay.

The phrase ‘harmony with nature’ is of popular use, yet a deep slice of the Singularity, or what those inside the Singularity can see of it, might be called, ‘harmony with technology’.

Herodotus: These be mystics of technology.

John: They live in an artificial jungle of technology, or rather an artificial not-jungle of technology, an artificial anti-jungle of technology. For one example, what do you call the natural use of wood?

Herodotus: A bundle of wood is of course for burning.

John: And they know of using wood for burning, but it is an exotic, rare case to them; say ‘wood’ and precious few will think of gathering wood to burn.

Herodotus: Then what on earth do they use wood for? Do they eat it when food is scarce or something like that?

John: Say ‘wood’ and not exotic ‘firewood’, and they will think of building a house.

Herodotus: So then they are right dexterous, if they can build out of a bundle of gathered sticks instead of burning it.

John: They do not gather sticks such as you imagine. They fell great trees, and cut the heartwood into rectangular box shapes, which they fit together in geometrical fashion. And when it is done, they make a box, or many boxes, and take rectangles hotly fused sand to fill a window. And they add other philosophy on top of that, so that if the house is well-built, the air inside will be pleasant and still, unless they take a philosophical machine to push air, and whatever temperature the people please, and it will remain dry though the heavens be opened in rain. And most of their time is spent in houses, or other ‘buildings’ like a house in this respect.

Herodotus: What a fantastical enterprise! When do they enter such buildings?

John: When do they rather go out of them? They consider it normal to spend less than an hour a day outside of such shelters; the subtle machine mentioned earlier moves but it is like a house built out of metal in that it is an environment entirely contrived by philosophy and artifice to, in this case, convey people from one place to another.

Herodotus: How large is this machine? It would seem to have to be very big to convey all their people.

John: But this is a point where their ‘technology’ departs from the art that is implicit in τεχνη: it is in fact not a lovingly crafted work of art, shaped out of the spirit of that position ye call ‘inventor’ or ‘artist’, but poured out by the thousands by gigantical machines yet more subtle, and in the wealth of the Singularity, well nigh unto each hath his own machine.

Herodotus: And how many can each machine can convey? Perchance a thousand?

John: Five, or six, or two peradventure, but the question is what they would call ‘academical’: the most common use is to convey one.

Herodotus: They must be grateful for such property and such philosophy!

John: A few are very grateful, but the prayer, ‘Let us remember those less fortunate than ourselves’ breathes an odor that sounds truly archaical. It sounds old, old enough to perhaps make half the span of a man’s life. And such basic technology, though they should be very much upset to lose them, never presents itself to their mind’s eye when they hear the word ‘technology’. And indeed, why should it present itself to the mind his eye?

Herodotus: I strain to grasp thy thread.

John: To be thought of under the heading of ‘technology’, two things must hold. First, it must be possessed of an artificial unlife, not unlike the unlife of their folklore’s ghouls and vampires and zombies. And second, it must be of recent vintage, something not to be had until a time that is barely past. Most of the technologies they imagine provide artificially processed moving images, some of which are extremely old—again, by something like half the span of a man’s life—while some are new. Each newer version seemeth yet more potent. To those not satisfied with the artificial environment of an up-to-date building, regarded by them as something from time immemorial, there are unlife images of a completely imaginary artificial world where their saying ‘when pigs can fly’ meaning never is in fact one of innumerable things that happen in the imaginary world portrayed by the technology. ‘SecondLife’ offers a second alternative to human life, or so it would seem, until ‘something better comes along.’

Herodotus: My mind, it reeleth.

John: Well it reeleth. But this be but a sliver.

For life to them is keeping one’s balance on shifting sand; they have great museums of different products, as many as the herbs of the field. But herein lies a difference: we know the herbs of the field, which have virtues, and what the right use is. They know as many items produced by philosophy, but they are scarce worse for the deal when they encounter an item they have never met before. For while the herbs of the field be steady across generations and generations, the items belched forth by their subtle philosophy change not only within the span of a man’s life; they change year to year; perchance moon to moon.

Herodotus: Thou sayest that they can navigate a field they know not?

John: Aye, and more. The goal at which their catechism aims is to ‘learn how to learn’; the appearance and disappearance of kinds of items is a commonplace to them. And indeed this is not only for the items we use as the elements of our habitat: catechists attempt to prepare people for roles that exist not yet even as the students are being taught.

Though this be sinking sand they live in, they keep balance, of a sort, and do not find this strange. And they adapt to the changes they are given.

Herodotus: It beseemeth me that thou speakest as of a race of Gods.

John: A race of Gods? Forsooth! Thou knowest not half of the whole if thou speakest thus.

Herodotus: What remaineth?

John: They no longer think of making love as an action that in particular must needeth include an other.

Herodotus: I am stunned.

John: And the same is true writ large or writ small. A storyteller of a faintly smaller degree, living to them in ages past, placed me in an icon:

The Stranger mused for a few seconds, then, speaking in a slightly singsong voice, as though he repeated an old lesson, he asked, in two Latin hexameters, the following question:

‘Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?’

Ransom replied, ‘Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursede people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.’

The storyteller saw and saw not his future. ‘Tis rare in the Singularity to fabricate children ‘by vile arts in a secret place’. But the storyteller plays us false when he assumes their interest would be in a ‘cunningly fashioned image of the other’. Truer it would be to say that the men, by the fruits of philosophy, jump from one libidinous dream to another whilest awake.

Herodotus: Forsooth!

John: A prophet told them, the end will come when no man maketh a road to his neighbors. And what has happened to marriage has happened, by different means but by the same spirit, to friendship. Your most distant acquaintanceship to a fellow member is more permanent than their marriage; it is routine before the breakable God-created covenant of marriage to make unbreakable man-made covenants about what to do if, as planned for, the marriage ends in divorce. And if that is to be said of divorce, still less is the bond of friendship. Their own people have talked about how ‘permanent relationships’, including marriage and friendship, being replaced by ‘disposable relationships’ which can be dissolved for any and every reason, and by ‘disposable relationships’ to ‘transactional relationships’, which indeed have not even the pretension of being something that can be kept beyond a short transaction for any and every reason.

And the visits have been eviscerated, from a conversation where voice is delivered and vision is stripped out, to a conversation where words alone are transmitted without even hand writing; from a conversation where mental presence is normative to a conversation where split attention is expected. ‘Tis yet rarely worth the bother to make a physical trail, though they yet visit. And their philosophy, as it groweth yet more subtle, groweth yet more delicate. ‘Twould scarcely require much to ‘unplug’ it. And then, perhaps, the end will come?

Herodotus: Then there be a tragic beauty to these people.

John: A tragic beauty indeed.

Herodotus: What else hast thou to tell of them?

John: Let me give a little vignette:

Several men and women are in a room; all are fulfilling the same role, and they are swathed with clothing that covers much of their skin. And the differences between what the men wear, and what most of the women wear, are subtle enough that most of them do not perceive a difference.

Herodotus: Can they not perceive the difference between a man and a woman?

John: The sensitivity is dulled in some, but it is something they try to overlook. But I have not gotten to the core of this vignette:

One of them indicateth that had they be living several thousand years ago they would not have had need of clothing, not for modesty at least, and there are nods of agreement to her. And they all imagine such tribal times to be times of freedom, and their own to be of artificial restriction.

And they fail to see, by quite some measure, that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than being without clothing; or that their buildings deaden all of a million sources of natural awareness: the breeze blowing and the herbs waving in the wind; scents and odours as they appear; song of crickets’ kin chirping and song of bird, the sun as it shines through cloud; animals as they move about, and the subtleties and differences in the forest as one passes through it. They deaden all of these sensitivities and variations, until there is only one form of life that provides stimulation: the others who are working in one’s office. Small wonder, then, that to a man one woman demurely covered in an office has an effect that a dozen women wearing vines in a jungle would never have. But the libertines see themselves as repressed, and those they compare themselves to as, persay, emancipated.

Herodotus: At least they have the option of dressing modestly. What else hast thou?

John: There is infinitely more, and there is nothing more. Marriage is not thought of as open to children; it can be dissolved in divorce; it need not be intrinsically exclusive; a further installment in the package, played something like a pawn in a game of theirs, is that marriage need not be between a man and a woman. And if it is going to be dismantled to the previous portion, why not? They try to have a world without marriage, by their changes to marriage. The Singularity is a disintegration; it grows more and more, and what is said for marriage could be said for each of the eight devils: intertwined with this is pride, and it is only a peripheral point that those who further undefine marriage speak of ‘gay pride’. A generation before, not mavericks but the baseline of people were told they needed a ‘high self-esteem’, and religious leaders who warned about pride as a sin, perhaps as the sin by which the Devil fell from Heaven, raised no hue and cry that children were being raised to embrace pride as a necessary ascesis. And religion itself is officially permitted some role, but a private role: not that which fulfills the definition of religare in binding a society together. It is in some measure like saying, ‘You can speak any language you want, as long as you utter not a word in public discourse’: the true religion of the Singularity is such ersatz religion as the Singularity provides. Real religion is expected to wither in private.

The Singularity sings a song of progress, and it was giving new and different kinds of property; even now it continues. But its heart of ice showeth yet. For the march of new technologies continues, and with them poverty: cracks begin to appear, and the writing on the wall be harder to ignore. What is given with one hand is not-so-subtly taken away with the other. The Singularity is as needful to its dwellers as forest or plain to its dwellers, and if it crumbles, precious few will become new tribal clans taking all necessities from the land.

Herodotus: Then it beseemeth the tragedy outweigheth the beauty, or rather there is a shell of beauty under a heart of ice.

John: But there are weeds.

Herodotus: What is a weed?

John: It is a plant.

Herodotus: What kind of plant is a weed? Are the plants around us weeds?

John: They are not.

Herodotus: Then what kinds of plants are weeds?

John: In the Singularity, there is a distinction between ‘rural’, ‘suburban’, and ‘urban’: the ‘rural’ has deliberately set plants covering great tracts of land, the ‘suburban’ has fewer plants, if still perhaps green all around, and the ‘urban’ has but the scattered ensconced tree. But in all of them are weeds, in an urban area plants growing where the artificial stone has cracked. And among the natural philosophers there are some who study the life that cannot be extinguished even in an urban city; their specialty is called ‘urban ecology’. The definition of a weed is simply, ‘A plant I do not want.’ We do not have weeds because we do not seek an artificial envionment with plants only present when we have put them there. But when people seek to conform the environment to wishes and plans, even in the tight discipline of planned urban areas, weeds are remarkably persistent.

And in that regard, weeds are a tiny sliver of something magnificent.

Herodotus: What would that be?

John: The durability of Life that is writ small in a weed here in the urban, there in the suburban is but a shadow of the durabiity of Life that lives on in the sons of men. Mothers still sing lullabyes to their dear little children; friendships form and believers pray at church far more than happened in the age where my story was told, a story dwarfed by what was called the ‘age of faith’. The intensity of the attacks on the Church in a cruel social witness are compelled to bear unwilling witness to the vitality of the Church whose death has been greatly exaggerated: and indeed that Church is surging with vitality after surviving the attacks. The story told seems to tell of Life being, in their idiom, ‘dealt a card off every side of the deck’—and answering, ‘Checkmate, I win.’ I have told of the differences, but there are excellent similarities, and excellent differences. For a knight whoso commandeth a wild and unbridled horse receiveth greater commendation than a knight whoso commandeth a well-bred and gentle steed.

Herodotus: The wind bloweth where it listeth. The just shall live by his faith. Your cell, though it be wholly artificial, will teach you everything you need to know.

John: Thou hast eagerly grasped it; beyond beauty, tragedy, and beyond tragedy, beauty. Thou hast grasped it true.

[Here ends the manuscript]

Read more of The Best of Jonathan’s Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Mystical Theology on Amazon!

The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit:” here begin the Beatitudes, a ladder reaching to the expanse of Heaven.

Poor in spirit was the Theotokos whose scandalous pregnancy helped prepare the way for the scandal of the cross. Poor and humble in spirit was the one who humbly prayed the doxology, the Magnificat:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

To be poor and humble in spirit is the first rung on a ladder that climbs to Heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

This life was given to us for repentance. Repentance is terrifying as a prospect; it seems like mournfully letting go of something we must have. Then when we let go, we find ourselves in a space more spacious than the Heavens, and realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!”

To those who mourn their sins, who cry out for mercy, Christ answers by pouring out mercy and comforting them. But it is nonsense to expect such comfort without mourning; comfort is the fruit that men eat when they have planted it as a seed of mourning. And the fruit would have no taste to one who had not done the work of planting the seeds. Heaven offers nothing the mercenary soul can desire, and the Fire of Hell is itself the Light of Heaven as it is experienced through the rejection of the only Joy that we can have: Christ himself.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.One person I heard years ago said that the term “meek” in Greek was a term one would use of a horse that for all its strength was under disciplined control, and so to be “meek” was power under control. And that reading, however good or bad it may be from a scholarly perspective, is spiritual poison: it castrates the words that are meant to be an insult to our pride.

Part of what is not communicated clearly is that a “meek” horse was under disciplined control from another; from its rider: a meek horse was not exceptionally good at marching to the beat of a different drummer! A meek horse, like you or me, is under authority, under headship, and to be meek is defined by that headship. And this unfolds in showing meekness before others: the Lord was meek before his accusers because he was meek to his Father and Head. The meekness we are meant to have has an aspect of discipline, even power, but it is neither ungrounded nor headless; it reflects the headship of Christ and others over us.

The Sermon on the Mount is intended to build power in the reader; but part of this power is the power of humility, and to be able to interpret “Blessed are the meek” without seeing a challenge to one’s pride is poison. One time I confessed pride in my intelligence, and the priest told me quite emphatically, “The only true intelligence is humility!” Humility is the mortar that holds together all spiritual bricks and stones, the virtues in the spiritual life and the Sermon on the Mount. And we need the humbling spiritual training ground of meekness if we are going to get anywhere. Crediting ourselves with “strength under control” is worthless, penny wise and pound foolish, or worse.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is truly good for them: for they shall be satisfied.

The Greek term translated ‘blessed’ at one stroke means both happy and blessed. So this beatitude could be rephrased, “Blessed are those who seek for the only happiness there is; for they will be satisfied. (Others who seek happiness in the wrong places can never be satisfied, even if they find it: “Two great tragedies in life: not to find one’s heart’s desire, and to find it,” applies to that case.)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.Here and now I would underscore something that may not have needed such emphasis in other times: the word translated “mercy” refers both to God’s love, in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or giving money. St. John the Merciful and St. Philaret the Merciful are both called merciful because they are generous to those who beg them.

Now here I am entering a controversial point because many people say that it does no true help to give money to a beggar; and this is not simply an excuse of stinginess. You will hear this argument being made by people who work in soup kitchens and really care about the poor. And I would more pointedly bring something from a conversation with a friend, after we had given some money to a beggar and he quoted an anecdote where two friends were walking, one of them gave a little money to a beggar, and the other said afterwards, “You realize that he’d have probably drunk it?” and the first answered, “Yes, but if I’d have kept I’d have probably drunk it,” and I stridently objected to this anecdote. I told him that I would have no qualms about buying my next drink, or my friend’s next drink, but I would have every objection to buying the next drink for a pastor we both loved, who was an alcoholic: perhaps he had been stone cold sober for decades, but he was an alcoholic and I saw nothing good in giving him his next drink.

With that stated, all Orthodox priests I’ve heard on the topic say that you give something to beggars. Money. Not very much, necessarily, an amount that is entirely within your power. But it is worth considering carrying a pouch for change to give. Maybe it would also make sense to give fresh oranges or clementines (don’t give apples; people who have lost teeth have trouble with them), or chocolates. But when you give a beggar money, you are treating that person as a moral agent made in the image of God, and if he uses it wrongly, you have no more sinned than God has sinned by giving you blessings that you use wrongly. But in any show mercy and give something, with a kind look, as well as being merciful in other areas of your life, and you will be shown mercy in the more serious areas of your own life.

Be faithful to your neighbor in little, and God will be faithful to you in much. Be merciful to your neighbor in little, and God will be merciful to you in much. (Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.)

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are those who seek what they ought to seek, for they will receive it.

The saints shall see God: saint and sinner alike shall see the Uncreated Light which shone on Mount Tabor. God is Light; he cannot but shine, and can only shine in fulness, for every creature, for the saved and for the damned. Then why say, “Blessed are the pure in heart” as if they alone will see God?

The answer is that the pure in heart will see God in their ultimate triumph, while the impure will see God in their ultimate defeat. God cannot do anything but shine in his Light; creatures cannot be happy, blessedly happy, except that they see this light. Now it may only be a mediated, dimmed, filtered, metaphorical sight of God who is Uncreated Light, but still: blessedness is the only entryway to happiness. (If in fact they really are two different things.)

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

In English, “peace” often means the absence of violence, though something that is soothing may be called “peaceful.” In Hebrew and in Greek, the defining characteristic is not the absence of violence, but a state of well-being where love is manifest. The predominant, though not exclusive, sense is of divine blessing. One may be a peacemaker by quelling violence, but the broader sense is a way of life where divine love is manifest.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We are entering a time of trial, when darkness rises. When I was a boy it seemed obvious to me that I had good chances of living to a ripe old age. Now it seems much more possible that I may endure persecution at least. Or at least face persecution; I would compare myself to a poorly trained soldier on the eve of a battle. But the stronger persecutions get, the more powerfully some of these passages speak. The Sermon on the Mount was not given to people whose lives would be comfort and ease. The Sermon on the Mount was given to people where persecution was a fact of life, and this beatitude has good news: persecution for righteousness’ sake is the privilege of the Kingdom of Heaven. We know enough of earthly privileges: a car, a big house, the respect of others. But persecution for righteousness’ sake is not meaningless; it is the token by which saints are given the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

In Hebrew, to repeat an adjective three times is to give superlative force: in Isaiah 6, the seraphs call to each other, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of Hosts.” Here we have the same beatitude repeated three times in three wordings. The point is emphasized. The first time, Christ says, “Blessed are they…” as it speaking of others. Now he says, “Blessed are ye…” and addresses us directly. He strengthens those who will be persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and underscores the heavenly privilege of being “counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41).

Persecution and defamation are how the world heralds true sons of God. Satan is the ultimate sore loser, and these blows struck from below acknowledge that one is ascending into Heaven.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

During one scandal about baseball players abusing steroids, the question was raised of what a terrible example these athletes were to younger kids looking up to them as role models. Some had the audacity to protest, “But I never tried or sought out to be a role model,” and other people said, “Sorry, buddy, you are. The question is not whether an athlete like you is a role model. The question is whether an athelete like you is a good role model, or a bad role model. You are a role model.”

The Sermon on the Mount does not say that if we are very holy we may become the salt of the earth and the light of the world; it says that we are, fullstop. We can lose our saltiness and become worthless as salt; but the question is not whether we are holy enough to be salt of the earth and light of the world. We aren’t, but that’s beside the point. The only question is whether we exercise this role well or poorly.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Christ changes things, but if you think he is a way to dodge the hard parts of the Law, you have another think coming.

The story of the woman at the well is a story where shame loomed large. The woman came to draw water alone because she had a terrible reputation, and when Christ announced living water, she sought his help running for her shame. Read her story; Christ offers no help in escaping her shame, but instead pulls her through her shame to the other side, when she ran through the village, freed from her shame, announcing, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!”

If we seek Christ to provide an easy way out of the hard parts of the Law, we seek the impossible.

But Christ can pull us through to the other side.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

These are strong words, and if you ask if this is an example of “hyperbole”, then if you mean by “hyperbole” a way to dodge their force, then no, they are not hyperbole.

Some of the Fathers look for a more than literal sense: “Agree with thine adversary quickly” does not refer to a man, but our ever-accusing conscience. And though few have had spine enough to leave a gift before an altar, we offer wrongly if we go to the altar without first coming terms with the other person.

More broadly, these words are not an exaggeration of “First things first.” These words are forceful at a point where the truth is forceful, and we gain something when we look for, not less than these words would appear to offer, but more. For one example, when we have offended another person, the wrong thing to do is hope it will go away, hope that if you forget about the whole deal the other person will to. You are in their eyes as one justly in prison, and will remain so until you have made amends, and that to the uttermost farthing: “almost satisfied” is a very bad resting place.

Even when there was no question of conflict, the principle applies. One of my responsibilities as a web designer at my university was to take portraits of faculty members, and you could tell the difference between when a professor was happy with a picture, and when she was almost happy with the picture. There were times when a professor was almost happy and thoughtfully talked about wrapping up the photo shoot and moving on, and that was an ending I avoided like the bubonic plague. I would rather spend a full hour shooting photos to get one the professor was happy with, and have both of us walk away happy, than have the professor decide, “I’ve taken enough of your time,” and walk away almost happy. In practice it never took anywhere near an hour, but better devote an hour to getting the other person happy, to the uttermost farthing, and both walk away happy, than say, “Well, I suppose this is good enough.” Better to pay the uttermost farthing.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

This being commentary on the world’s most politically incorrect sermon, perhaps it might be appropriate to give a few words here on unnatural vice.

In one sense sin and vice are never natural. But there are vices that are unnatural, such as (among sexual vices) contraception. To people who find that identification of unnatural vice, I extend an invitation to read Orthodoxy, contraception, and spin doctoring: A look at an influential but disturbing article, in which I tear to shreds the article that defined the (hotly contested) “new concensus” that contraception is permissible to Orthodox provided you follow a few guidelines.

There is a shift between patristic times and our day; it may well be that an Orthodox monk in America interacts more with women than a married Orthodox Christian in patristic times. The old rule was, “Don’t go to your wife unless you’re going to her to try to make a baby.” And over time this harsh position has been progressively softened, and an I would be overstepping to suggest a reconstitution of the ancient rule. But there has been a progression over history; once people changed their minds and said that it is permissible to have sex during the infertile period despite the infertility to such acts, to some saying that it is permissible to limit sex to the infertile period in order to enjoy sex without the encumbrance of fertility. We have no entitlements, but we believe we are entitled to the pleasure of sex without the encumbrance of fertility. And in recent years we have pursued this sexual perversion further, and a man who has trouble getting it up once is entitled to ED drugs. Far from a St. Maximus Confessor who regarded the pleasure of sex as not spiritually helpful and regarded sex as wrong when a man approached a woman other than his wife or approached his wife for a purpose other than conceiving a child, we understand sex as good in terms of being a potent “pleasure delivery system.” And, pop culture notwithstanding, we don’t need a pleasure delivery system. It is almost an act of counterculture for Orthodox Christians to refuse to practice more unnatural vice than the Greeks of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, where one philosopher was asked, “How often should I have sex?” and gave the answer, “As often as you wish to deplete your energy.” It’s not just that ancient Orthodoxy exercised a tad bit more self-control in sex than we do; queer Greek philosophers were also just a little more self-restrained than us.

And a note to those anticipating at least a mention of queer sexuality, I will say this. Hillsboro Baptist Church may be Christianity’s greatest gift to queer advocacy yet. It spares gays the trouble of wondering whether a God who loves gays infinitely, and a God who wants far better than gay acts for them, might be one and the same God. Before trying to straighten out queers, we might work on straightening those who appear straight.

Once a great teacher and a truth-seeker were standing in a river. The teacher asked the student, “What do you want?” The truth-seeker said, “Truth.”

Then the teacher plunged the student under the water, and let him up and asked him, “What do you want?” The student said, “Truth!” Then the teacher held the student’s head under the water, and the student struggled and struggled, and finally the teacher let him up and asked him, “What do you want?” The student gasped, “Air!!!” Then the teacher said, “When you want truth the way you want air, you will find it.”

The same thing goes for freedom from porn!

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

In ancient times the concensus was that this cannot be taken literally. If you sin with your right eye and pluck it out, you will go on sinning with your left eye. Furthermore, when a man decided to cut off the problem at its root, the Council condemned self-castration.

However, the fact that these words cannot be literal does not mean that they cannot be true. In ascetical struggle, there will be some sin, some thing to which one is attached in passion, that it seems we cannot live without. To give it up would to be to tear out our right eye or right hand. But the Lord tells us: “Tear out your right eye and your right hand and be free,” and we must cut off our own damnation. Never mind that afterwards we realize that we were afraid of letting go of Hell; never mind that once we have torn out our right eye cut off our right hand we find that we have our right eye and our right hand now more than ever: if cutting off our right hand is the price of freedom, cut it off.

And to pick a salient example: if you are one of many men who does not benefit from having a porn delivery service attached to your computer, cut off the sewer of pornography at whatever level necessary to be free. Censorware exists; not wanting to have to bring a sin to confession exists. Canceling internet service and checking email at libraries is better than having full internet access and taking that path all the way to Hell.

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Marriage is permanent. Civil divorce exists, and the great mercies of Orthodox oikonomia extend to allowing a second or third marriage after divorce, even if they make clear that this is oikonomia. But even with divorce in the picture, marriage is indelible: to put it bluntly, when two divorced people sleep together, there are four people in the bed.

But there is another point to be made: the place of marriage, that is real, full, true marriage in the world today is almost like the place of monasticism in the desert in days past. One monk in the Philokalia wrote that the things that are successes for a man in the world are failures to the monk, and the things that are successes to a monk are failures to a man in the world. A man in the world wants a fine reputation and places of honor, a beautiful wife and fine children, a magnificent and luxurious house, to be able to have his way in what happens, etc. And all of these are ruin to the monk. For the monk, success consists in living in obedience and receiving painful commands, having a spartan cell, enduring shame and dishonor, being cut off from his kin, and so on. And if this happens to the man in the world, some have committed suicide. And there is something strikingly similar, spookily similar, with the faithful married life in the world and classical monasticism.

If we ask what is success in the world as a whole, it is sampling various world spiritualities, having a nice car and house, being able to buy the things you see advertised, and so on and so forth. And not all of these are ruin for faithful married life in the world, but at least the price tags are switched. To faithful married life in the world, doing some nice family activity every week, or even just doing chores together, is much better than two high paying jobs and a nanny. A family presumably means some income, but the faithful living married life in the world are probably not going to be good enough at running the rat race to have much more money than they need (and if they are faithful, they will be more likely to open their hands). None of this is technically a monk’s “vow of poverty,” but between inflation, low income, and debt, the family may have a “virtual vow of poverty.” People in times before have said that marriage and monasticism are two different and possibly opposite ways to reach the same goal, ultimately a goal of living out of love for God. But that’s a decoy to my point here. My point here is that compared to the success and standards of the world around us, faithful married life in the world starts to look a whole lot like monasticism and not much at all like people who look to Starbuck’s and yoga, perhaps also serial monogamy, to fill their deepest needs.

Marriage is given attention in the quite short Sermon on the Mount, and its sanctity is underscored by underscoring its permanence. Especially today, we should give marriage something of the recognition we give monasticism.

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

To abolish oaths is to make every statement an oath. An oath is specially sanctioned; by saying “You know I am telling truth because I am swearing,” you implicitly say, “This needed because I were not to swear it might be OK for me to lie.”

God swears in the Bible, and St. Paul’s letters contain much swearing, or language that is close to swearing, but none the less it is not only the radical Reformers’ fixation on the Sermon on the Mount that rejected swearing: an Athonite monk refused to swear in court and went, uncomplainingly, through a four month jail term and said, “It may seem a small matter to you, but we recognize something real and important in it.” And, I would expect, truthfulness was enough of this monk’s character that to him every statement was made as if it were an oath.

There is also a second layer, which might be put as follows: “Swear even by your head? Guarantee that something will happen? Do you have any idea that you might not wake up tomorrow, that any number of things might change about your circumstances? Don’t you understand that you cannot make one single hair white or black?”

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Is there a just war? No and never; Orthodox soldiers who kill in war must do penance. The treasury of Orthodox saints includes mighty warriors like St. George, and passion-bearers like the princes Boris and Gleb who allowed themselves to be murdered by wicked rulers usurping their throne. But even St. George did not defend himself from being martyred.

But the point here is not overstated; if anything, it is understated. It may or may not be right to defend oneself, one’s loved ones, one’s country, by force of arms. There may be oikonomia, leniency, to defend oneself by force even though it injures others’ bodies. But the Christ before Pilate not only did not defend himself by violence; he did not resist evil even by words. And Orthodox tradition has picked up on this and said that monks are to remain silent before their accusers and not even defend themselves by words. And it is a strange thing to say that we may never injure another’s body to defend ourselves; it is beyond strange to say we may not defend ourselves even by healing another’s understanding. But let us recall Christ on trial. Christ did not do what was expected, make any defense against the many allegations brought before him; his entire passion is a living exposition of the claim, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And this is not just that Christ’s disciples did not defend him beyond cutting off Malchus’ ear (whom Christ healed), but there is something positive we will forever miss if we say that in the ideal we may not defend ourselves even by trying to heal the poison others hold in their mind when they accuse us.

When Christ had refused to play along with the Sanhedrin, the astonished Pilate asked him, “Don’t you know I have the power to crucify you or to free you?” Or, to paraphrase, “Don’t you see that I have all the cards in my hand, and you have none?” And Pilate was terrified as their exchange unfolded; Christ made no effort to free himself and Pilate did not know what power he was dealing with but knew that he was dealing with a power next to which his power, his pomp, his authority was but dust and ashes. Pontius Pilate sensed that he was a chintzy wooden puppet king passing judgment on the first real man he’d met. After then, Christ was crucified, but the grave was not big enough to hold him, and is the grave, not Christ, that lost in the exchange. In the Resurrection of Christ, when the Devil appeared to have managed a decisive and final victory, “God the Game Changer” trumpeted, “Checkmate!”


And here we come to something politically incorrect enough that most readers will read the text and be blithely unaware of it. It doesn’t even show up as a blip on the radar.

Perhaps the best way to portray it, or at least the best I can find, is to portray two archetypes, the archetypes of the Saint and the Activist, which define a polarity. The Saint, as I use the term here, consists mostly of people who will never see canonization as formal saints, and the Activist includes mostly people who don’t think of themselves as activists, not any more than people who use cars, trains, busses, and airplanes think of themselves as “motor vehicle enthusiasts.” The Activist prays, if anything, “Lord, help me change the world,” and is concerned with the sewer of problems in the world around. The saint prays, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and is concerned with the sewer of problems within. (G.K. Chesterton won an essay contest, and also wrote the shortest letter to the editor on record, answered the question, “What is wrong with the world?” with a Saint’s, “Sir, I am.“) The Saint may end up changing the world; in the end the Saint will end up changing the world, but that must never be his goal. “Save yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved,” is not about the need to straighten out ten thousand people, but the need to straighten out one, and the one person you may least wish to correct. The Activist says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” The Saint says, “Be it unto me according to thy word;” Could any difference be greater?

Since the Catholic Church, one could say, self-amputated from Orthodoxy in 1054, East and West have been separated by a growing chasm, and in an inconsistency I will use ‘East’ to refer to the Eastern Orthodox Church (though, in this regard, it shares much with Hinduism, (more subtly) Islam, Jainism, etc.), while by ‘West’ I refer to the broader Western society and specifically include elements that the Roman Catholic Church played no part in. There is a reason for this inconsistency in that the fall of the Roman Church deprived the West of a vital nutrient, however I am simply choosing terms inconsistently to best illuminate something.

In the West, the figure of the Renaissance magus looms large and still has a shadow today: job ads I see calling for an Ajax ninja or a Rails rockstar echo the Renaissance magus. The Eastern figure was the humble member of a community, one strand of an intricately woven web, relating to society, culture, and the Church as one relates to a mother. But the Renaissance magus, besides freely engaging the occult, stood over and against society, and regarded one’s culture as a sort of a despicable raw material that would gain value only insofar as one would transform it to something better. And this attitude represented a novelty, or at least an aberration, to Orthodoxy. It would come across a bit like telling the mother who gave you birth, “You know, I don’t like the way your body is arranged. You have one arm more than you need; we can consolidate the musculature to give you a much stronger arm, and move your fingers to your feet so that you can easily use your feet to pick things up. And your present skin color is not nearly so beautiful as the royal purple with which I would see you adorned; you should go through the pain of a whole-body tattoo so that your skin may be regal in its color. And I would like to rearrange a few things inside.” And did I mention that the Renaissance magi claimed equality to Christian saints, saying that the Renaissance magus and the Christian saint were two sides of the same coin?

The Renaissance magus left several strands that are part of the West, and I am not here talking about increasing interest in the occult. I would recall one class where the admittedly flaming liberal professor introduced the topic of “autism and advocacy,” finding it patently obvious that if you care about people on the spectrum, “care” translates immediately to political activism. One of the articles she had chosen was surprisingly a Saint talking about the ascesis of love, the spiritual discipline, of living as a father to an autistic child and facing parenting issues that simply don’t come up with autism-normal children. But to an Activist, the obvious response to the autism spectrum, if you have a heart, is political advocacy. But that isn’t really from the heart, because Activism is from a head severed from the heart. The response that had a heart was the one she was blind to even as she assigned it: the struggle of a father, in the concrete, to love and care for a highly autistic child. This heart had no grand schemes to transform society, even on a smaller level; it was just exercising a Saint’s love and care in whatever concrete situation one is in. Including having a child and discovering that he had some unusual needs and would take a lot of love to care for.

The Activist looms large; it looms large enough that not only do liberals pursue advocacy of liberal agendas, but many conservatives shuffle a few things around and pursue advocacy of a few conservative agendas. This may seem strange enough to say, but I wince at some of the conservative, Christian pro-life advocacy I have seen, because it takes the framework of a liberal activist and fills in the blanks with something conservative instead of something liberal. Being pro-life is an area where political Activism can only take you so far: you cannot reach its heart, until you enter the process of becoing a Saint.

The Saint turns the other cheek. The Activist can only win by earthly victory. The Saint often wins though earthly defeat.

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead. the saints tell us. Fasting benefits you alone; almsgiving also benefits your neighbor. And these things cannot be kept secret. The harder you try to keep your almsgving a secret, the more God will show you off as his faithful Saint.

The spiritual danger of making good deeds a means to praise is like buying food so that you can play with its packaging. It’s entirely backwards, and Christ lays the axe at the root of the tree: he does not chop it off above ground so it will grow back, but cuts as deep in the roots as he needs to do uproot a deadly weed. What God does or does not do in terms of publicizing results is his concern and not ours. Our concern is that it shows severely warped priorities to seek commensurate recognition for your goodness.

I remember wishing, years back, to see some Christian institution name a building after a widow who gave $2.99 a month that she couldn’t afford, out of her husband’s pension.

I have not lost that wish, but I am profoundly grateful that the Orthodox Church names parishes not after money bags, but after a saint or feast who has entered the heavenly mansions and is no longer in danger of sinking into pride from being so honored.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

Almsgiving is not to be trumpeted, but few of us are so stealthy as to give alms without the recipient knowing. But prayer can be done in secret, so only God knows we pray. The text does not have mainly unspoken prayers in mind such as those coming from Protestantism may expect; purely mental prayer is one of a number of kinds of prayer there is, and the text does not discuss prayer without opening one’s lips, but prayer in one’s closet with the door shut, prayer which is presumably spoken aloud. But as with almsgiving, we are to seek secrecy and hidden works, and when we strive to tear away the last shred of wanting to show off our good deeds, God himself will show off our good deeds.

Orthodox writing about “much speaking” take a line of argument one might not get from the “bare text” of “use not vain repetitions.” Essentially, the suggestion is that the bedrock of prayer is not from masterpieces of rhetorical excellence, but rather simple, childlike prayers which are repeated over and over. The Jesus Prayer is the crowning jewel of such prayers. But even then, it is a mistake to think one will be heard for much speaking. The Jesus Prayer is intended to sink down into you from the outside in until it becomes like the blood pulsing through your body, and even in the highest use of the Jesus Prayer there is no expectation that one will be heard from one’s many words. The path that is most abundant in repeated words is the one further from thinking one is heard from much repetition.

And furthermore Christ de-mythologizes God. If the Father is seen as an old man with a beard, it may be entirely relevant to inform him what things one has need of. But Christ will not accept this: God knows, before we begin to ask him, what we need, and he knows better than we do. We are urged on every account to pray, but the burden does not lie on our shoulders to instruct God about what we need.

I may comment briefly that before Bultmann went through his campaign to de-mythologize the Bible, over a thousand years before Pseudo-Dionysius had a campaign to de-mythologize the Bible, and did a better job of it. Here Christ instructs us in appropriate prayer to a de-mythologized God.

After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

“Our Father:” in these two words alone is something astonishing, something stunning. This prayer is prayed in the Divine Liturgy in the brief period when the holy gifts have become the body and blood of Christ and before they are consumed. It is a singular prayer. And it may be noted that calling God one’s Father is a strong claim in Scripture: to be a son of God is to be divine and from ancient times this prayer was seen in relation to theosis.

The first of seven petitions, “May your name be held holy,” contains the other six. It is as if the prayer is given here, and then a commentary.

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

This is an adult prayer. It is not a prayer that everything go according to your wishes, or mine, but God’s. It is a prayer that God’s reign extend, and the earth that is an icon of Heaven may ever be fuller or more complete.

Give us this day our daily bread.

This is the one prayer for material concerns, and it is exceedingly modest. It is kept by us who may have a month’s food on hand as a formality; but to many of those who prayed, it was anything but formality. The faithful needed the days’ bread. And here again it is modest, for it does not say “Give us this week a week’s bread,” but “Give us this day our daily bread.” The prayer is almost a goad to say, “Stop scrambling to enlist God as your helper in your efforts to build a kingdom on earth. Don’t cling to wants. You have legitimate needs, and you are invited, summoned, to ask for your legitimate need of enough bread for today.”

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

We ask God for contradictory things, and we do that all the time. We ask for the peace that belongs to people who are not controlling, and we also ask to be in complete control of others around us. We ask God to help a child make independent adult-like decisions, and we demand that their choice agree with hours. Or we ask God to free us from the misery of alcoholism and addiction, but we ask him to let us keep whatever we are addicted to. With the Blessed Augustine, we pray, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.”

It is incoherent, contradictory, to ask for forgiveness when we will not forgive. We owe God billions and billions of dollars, and when he has forgiven us, we demand repayment from our brother who owes a few thousand dollars. Not that a thousand dollars is any trifling sum; it is worth months of income, but if we will not forgive, God’s grace bounces off of us. The door to the heart can only be opened from the inside, but we are confused if we try to open it when we have bolted and barred it with a grudge.

There are seven petitions in this singularly important prayer, and any of them could be commented on at length. In the Sermon on the Mount only this one receives further comment, and it is a comment stark and clear.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.The closing note is not addressed to the Father alone, but asserts all kingdom, power, and authority to the whole Trinity. But the main point I would note is something else.

The prayer is given slightly differently in the Orthodox practice: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One,” and then a priest if present adds, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” “Evil One” replaces “evil” because we are not praying for a delivery from some abstract, depersonalized quality like confusion or misunderstanding, but from the Devil, the Dragon who swept a third of the stars from Heaven.

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

This is the comment mentioned above. All seven petitions are inexhaustible, but this one is clear: it is a stupid thing to hold on to a grudge and expect forgiveness. (Tradition preserves the reason why: it’s like holding shut the door to your heart and inviting God to come in.)

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

What has been said first of almsgiving, and then of prayer, is said of fasting, is this: if you try to show off, and your purpose is to impress others, then it is hollow and worthless. That is all the reward you will ever have, in this world or the next. But if you conceal it and perform to an audience of One, God himself, it will be full, invaluable, and God himself will show it off. By all means, choose the right path, and it will never be taken from you.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

This says more than the Tao Te Ching which I remember to say, “Halls of gold and jade cannot easily be guarded.” (The implication? If you don’t have halls of gold and jade, neither can you lose halls of gold and jade.) A net of financial security paradoxically becomes one more thing to worry about.

Christ offers very simple investment advice. This investment advice may be beyond the pall even of political incorrectness, but here is his investment plan:

  1. Do not store up financial resources, but give to the poor.
  2. Give freely as an offering to Christ.
  3. Christ will receive your gift as a loan.
  4. Christ will repay you exorbitantly, but on his time and on his terms.

This cuts against the grain of every worldly advice; financial assets that you hold on to are not an asset but a liability. Now some people have said, “We may have things as long as we are not attached to them,” and that is genuinely and fully true, but inner detachment is harder than just getting rid of one’s possessions, and easier to fool yourself.

Having an eartly safety net to do the job of God’s providence is to have an idol. Earthly worldly advice is about how to have enough treasures on earth to support oneself. But they are flimsy, worthless, and the best way to take yourself is not to store up treasures on earth, not to seek one’s providence from earthly treasure, but instead store up treasures of Heaven. And having really and truly thrown yourself on the mercy of God, you will find that God is merciful beyond your wildest dreams.

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

“If thine eye be single” has an immediate sense and a more profound sense. Marriage is honorable, but St. Paul warns that if a man is married his eye will not be single because it will be divided between the Lord and his wife. He gives advice but not a command. If it is a hindrance to divide one’s eye between the Lord and one’s spouse, what hindrance must it be to divide one’s eye between the Lord and despicable money!

On a deeper level, I would recall an academic theology who presented as a lesson from computer science that we should switch between several activities rapidly. (In academic theology, the standard way to do name-dropping is to introduce a term from science, usually in a way that scientists could not make head or tail of.) My response was, “This may be true; what it is not is a lesson from science,” but I don’t believe it is true. Far from it, divided attention is a hindrance to earthly success, let alone Heavenly growth; we fragment ourselves in a way that would be unimaginable millenia ago when philosophers said then that we were fragmented.

Progress in monasticism moves through layers of contemplation that let go of worldly things and even what one has grasped in previous layers of contemplation until one is all eye and all beholding the Uncreated Light. The focus becomes progressively like a laser: the monk, who is all eye, has more and more a single eye.

Perhaps there are other ways; reading the Tao Te Ching—or, better, the “Nine Enneads” from Christ the Eternal Tao, may not be on par with the Fathers, but if you let them sink in for decades you may gain something. Or simply be under the fatherly guidance of a good priest who appropriately emphasizes the Jesus Prayer. But in any cae Lao Tzu complained in his day that people had fallen from an eye that is single—let alone Christ— and if we make the same claim, we have gone from out of the frying pan, not into just fire, but into thermite (which has been used to burn through the armor on tanks).

One does not jump in a single moment from dismal conditions to perfection; the standard pastoral advice is to give a little more or cut back a little further, and we will not leap all in one jump from a divided eye to one that is single. But growing towards an eye that is single is growing towards contemplation in the glory we were made for.

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Note that Christ does not call Money a servant, but a master. He says not, “No man can have two servants,” but “No man can serve two masters.” If your life is ordered so that you have money and the things money can buy all lined up to serve you, it is in fact you who are serving money. And this is not just some sophisticated insight, but something very basic. St. Paul tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil, and the Philokalia describe the demon of loving money as what would today be described as a “gateway drug”: once one’s spirit is defeated by the love of money, one is passed along to other, worse demons. As regards money, the Sermon on the Mount is uncomfortably clear.

Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Let me make a couple of brief remarks before diving to the core of the passage. First of all, you are making a fundamental error if you assume that “Each day has enough trouble of its own” is only intended for the inhabitants of a mythical and perfect world. It is in fact practical advice for our world, and it is more practical advice for us today than ever. Second, there is a translation issue in that one verse could be rendered, “Which of you by worrying could add a single cubit [a foot and a half] to his height?” or “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour of your span of life,” but in fact the word play admits an apt paraphrase: “Do you think you can add a single hour to your lifespan by worrying? You might as well try to worry your way into being over a foot taller!”

Now to the main point: “Do not store up treasures on earth” and “You cannot serve both God and Money” are not a barbed wire fence that serves only to injure. They protect a paradise which we can live in here and now: if wealthy Solomon in all his splendor could not match the lilies of the field, to what height will we ascend if we let go of taking up God’s responsibility of providing for our needs; we will be as the birds of the air or the lilies of the field, as Adam and Eve naked and innocent in Paradise. We cast ourselves out of Paradise when we open our eyes and say, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we wear?” But the entire point of the stark, pointed fence is a buildup to a right and proper invitation to live in Paradise here and now. Not later, when the economy might be better. Here and now we are called to enter paradise and live the divine life.

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

I read a woman who was a pillar of the church I grew up in, recounting a civil union and saying, “There was not a dry eye in the place.” Even after I thought, I held my tongue from adding, “Only the sound of angels weeping.”

One of the principles of mystagogy in Orthodoxy is that if you know the truth, and you know someone will reject it, you don’t say it. Come Judgment Day, it is better for the other person to not have rejected the truth. And it is better for you not to have put the other person in that position. But even then we are not to judge; we have acted so that another person will not be Judged on Judgment Day, and who are we to judge? Has God asked our help judging our neighbor?

Someone sins, and that is a stench in God’s nostrils. Then we see it and we judge. Now there are two stenches in God’s nostrils. Is it better for you to leave God with one stench or two?

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

Keep on asking, and it will be given to you at a time you do not expect it. Keep on seeking, and you shall find at a place you would never imagine. Keep on knocking, and after you are certain your knocking is not working, the door shall be opened to you.

Sometimes it is less painful than this; but we must ask until our voices fail, because sometimes it is not until our voices fail and our petitions seem to have fallen on deaf ears are we ready to have what we ask for. Keep on asking. Keep on seeking. Keep on knocking. And if it is easier than this, count yourself blessed. If it is harder than this, still count yourself blessed. In all cases it is God’s sovereign hand strengthening and growing you in all the ways you would know to ask and all of the ways you would never imagine to ask.

Never stop asking, or seeking, or knocking. And never assume that because you did not instantly receive what you asked, you will never receive what you asked. Never assume that because your request was not granted in the way you envisioned, you will not be given something better that you would never think to ask.

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

We today, in our political correctness, manage others’ moods by feeding their vices. We give a stream of compliments so others will feel better. Christ does not give a honey-sweet drone of manufactured compliments; he instead calls us “evil” and elsewhere, though he surely is good, reproved even the truthseeker who called him “good.”

Christ says that if evil as we are, we give good gifts to children, how much will the Heavenly Father who is good give anything but excellent gifts? Quite often he gives us better than we asked and we say that our prayers were denied. We have been corrupt enough to ask for a stone to eat, or a serpent, and his work is to wean us from corrupt foods onto foods fitting in every sense to men. The original audience asked God for loaves and fishes, but we would rather have stones and serpents.

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

To pick a nit: the text does not say “Therefore all things whatsoever they would that men should do to you,” but “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you.” The single-word difference is subtle but profound.

wE are to ask for bread and fish. But when others ask for a stone, prayerfully consider giving bread, and when others ask for a serpent, prayerfully consider giving a fish. The time may not be right, or the occasion, but if nothing else we can pray good gifts for them. And do whatever you would want others to do for you if you ARE seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

At non-Orthodox funerals, I have always heard that the deceased is in Heaven. You die and next you go to Heaven. But there is another quite chilling possibility. Most people go to Hell and perhaps many Orthodox go to Hell. The one time I was closest to dying, I experienced and gave in to extraordinary temptations in my spirit. God graciously provided a way out, but it is common for the dying to be allowed great temptations, and I’m really not sure that if I had died then, in that state, I would be in Abraham’s bosom. As Orthodox we do not say that we have been saved; we might say that we are being saved, but even great saints do not enjoy safety. The story is told of a dying monk who stepped with one foot into Paradise, and the demons said, “Glory to you, you have defeated us,” and the monk said, “Not yet I haven’t,” and pulled the other foot completely into Paradise. The story is also told of a monk who experienced high mystical visions and was brought bodily into Heaven, and then fell and was damned.

Heaven is not the final resting place for everybody in our circle. Many we are connected to can easily be damned, and we ourselves can easily be damned. I am very wary of assuming that I am standing firm, because that is how you fall. And it is clear to me now that I could be damned no matter how good my ascesis looks to me.

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

You shall know them by their fruits: not anything else, even ecclesiastical rank.

We live in an age of false prophets, and not just those promoted on Oprah. These words of Christ have never been wisely ignored, but we need them in particular here and now: the fruits of rhetoric, the fruit of people’s personal lives so far as we know them, and the fruit of what happens in their following. The fruit of honest or dishonest, manupilative, shady rhetoric is perhaps the least important of these three, but it is there. The fruit of personal lives is important, though it may be harder to find since anyone can choose whatever image they want on the network: here “the prophet sees through a glass, darkly, while the archivist sees through a microscope, sharply,” (Peter Kreeft), and we do not have an archivist’s knowledge. But perhaps the most important fruit of all is another fruit that cannot be hidden, which is what happens in a person’s wake. Does the prophet leave behind a following with the fragrance of godliness, or a stench of rotting?

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Christ makes his point strongly. He does not say that many whose faith was lukewarm, many whose eyes were not single and whose hearts were divided, will be damned. That is of course true, although many “unlikely candidates” will feast in the Heavenly kingdom. But he puts the point most sharply: among those who seem to have a faith to remove mountains, who in his name have prophesied and cast out demons, who have performed miracles, will be damned.

There is an old Russian folktale that His Eminence KALLISTOS has what he calls an all-purpose story, where there was a woman who was exceedingly sharp and strict in fasting and every legalistic astonishment, and to her astonishment died and found herself in Hell. She called her guardian angel, and asked about what must be a mix-up. The angel asked if there was anything she had done out of charitable love for another, and she mentioned that she had given a long, thin onion to a beggar once. The angel reached out into his pouch, took out the onion, and said, “Here it is. I’ll hold onto one part of it and you hold onto the other, and I will try to pull you out.” The woman took the onion, and the others in Hell saw that she was starting to be pulled up, and began to grab on to her, so that there was a collected web beginning to rise out of the fire of Hell. The woman said, “Stop it! Let go! It’s mine!”, and when she said, “It’s mine!”, the onion snapped, and the woman and all those attached to her fell back into Hell.

Fasting and other disciplines are important, but a legalistic fast that does not arise from Christ knowing you is worthless. Even casting out demons and working miracles is of precious little value if it is not (the power of) Christ in you, the hope of glory. Neither unimpeachable fasting, nor working miracles, nor writing or reading theology, nor even almsgiving, will itself save you from being rightly damned to Hell.

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

When Y2k was approaching, I believed the grid would go black January 1, 2000. I believed in the worst case scenario, and while I did not have anything near adequate material preparation for this, I was completely wrong.

Completely wrong.

Then why do I feel like I’m crossing my fingers? Every prediction I believed about disaster on January 1, 2000 turned out to be 100% wrong.

The burr under my saddle in saying I was wrong was that I believe I was fully wrong about the details of Year 2000 collapse, but there are still some beliefs I retain. Not, perhaps, that the Y2k prediction was a nice, poetic story, or that I wish to say, Star Wars style, “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view,” but let me outline the beliefs I held surrounding Y2k:

  1. A great disaster will occur immediately on January 1, 2000, and will shut down Western civilization.
  2. If there is a great disaster, we will have physical needs.
  3. If there is a great disaster, we will have spiritual needs.

Now as far as the first point goes, I think it was wrong but not entirely off the mark; I don’t believe so much that deterioration will happen as that deterioration is already happening, and this is a point I don’t really think I need to argue.

Now as regards the second point, I could find survivalist resources galore; if I had more oomph to my opinion, I would have dug much deeper into the copious literature on how to care for one’s material needs if civilization abruptly fell apart on a particular day.

But the third point, the interesting one, is the one I had the most trouble about. It seemed obvious to me that if the grid were to go black, if all normal societal and social patterns were completely disrupted, then we would have other problems besides how much food we had in store and how ready we were to defend our resources. One friend of mine has worked on spiritual retreats for people at the bottom of the totem pole economically socially, recognizing correctly that not only do the people at the bottom of the totem pole benefit from having something in their belly and shelter from the elements, but they could benefit from a spiritual retreat for the same basic reasons middle class people would benefit from a spiritual retreat. And I deeply respect the humanness of that observation. And I asked and poked about psychological and spiritual resources for people surviving disasters, and this point was not one that survivalists seemed to have thought through. The most of a response I could get was, “Buy plenty of condoms and stock up on board games.

I broadened my search, seeing if I could find clues anywhere else, and in fact there were clues. People who had been taken hostage by terrorists for years had established a rhythm of spiritual discipline, and this “treasure from Heaven” fed their spirits in terrible situations. People who survived Nazi and Marxist concentration camps had a spiritual fire already burning. And the core of this fire is found in the Sermon on the Mount.

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

What is the “flood”? Cancer, adultery, divorce, depression, being a hostage of terrorists or a prisoner of Nazis or Marxists in concentration camps: all of these things are storm and flood flood. That some flood will come is completely non-negotiable. Whether we build on rock or sand is up to us, and as a martial arts instructor said, “The way you practice is the way you will fight:” if you are slow or half-hearted in spiritual disciplines now, you will arrive with disaster on half-baked preparation, whereas if you take to heart the words, “The more you bleed in the dojo, the less you’ll bleed on the street,” you will come to the disaster as one who has already bled, as someone who is ready for the fight.

There are resources on spiritual struggle that go into more detail than this: The Philokalia immediately springs to mind. But there is no text so central as the Sermon on the Mount.

Usability, the Soul of Python: An Introduction to Programming Python Through the Eyes of Usability

I would like to begin discussing Python with a feature that causes puzzlement to good programmers first meeting Python: significant whitespace.

Few features in Python are absolutely unique, and Python did not pioneer the concept of significant whitespace. The basic concept in significant whitespace is that how you use spaces, tabs, line breaks, etc. necessarily communicates certain basic aspects of your program, like how individual statements should be grouped together (or not). Previous influential languages to use significant whitespace include Cobol and Fortran, which are known by reputation, a reputation that survives in sayings like, “A computer without Cobol and Fortran is like a slice of chocolate cake without ketchup and mustard,” “The teaching of Cobol cripples the mind. Its teaching should therefore be regarded as a criminal offence,” or “You can tell how advanced of a society we live in when Fortran is the language of supercomputers.” Early exposure to Fortran left an undeniably foul taste in Eric Raymond’s mouth, and when he learned that Python had significant whitespace, he repeatedly described Python’s first impression on him as “a steaming pile of dinosaur dung.”

Since the days of fixed formatting as in Cobol and Fortran, there was the invention of what is called freeform formatting, which means that as long as you follow a few basic rules, you can use whitespace to format your code however you please. The list of languages that have embraced this feature include C, C++, Java, C#, Perl, PHP, and SQL, and that’s really just naming a few of the bigger players. Freeform formatting means that the compiler will accept all of the variations of the “internet user’s drinking song” below as equivalent:

for(i = 99; i > 0; ++i) {
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n", i);
    printf("%d slabs of spam,\n", i);
    printf("Send one to abuse and Just Hit Delete,\n");
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n\n", i + 1);
}

for(i = 99; i > 0; ++i)
{
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n", i);
    printf("%d slabs of spam,\n", i);
    printf("Send one to abuse and Just Hit Delete,\n");
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n\n", i + 1);
}

for(i = 99; i > 0; ++i)
  {
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n", i);
    printf("%d slabs of spam,\n", i);
    printf("Send one to abuse and Just Hit Delete,\n");
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n\n", i + 1);
  }

for(i = 99; i > 0; ++i)
    {
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n", i);
    printf("%d slabs of spam,\n", i);
    printf("Send one to abuse and Just Hit Delete,\n");
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n\n", i + 1);
    }

Which is best? From a usability standpoint, the braces go with the lines to print out the stanza rather than the for statement or the code after, so the following is best:

for(i = 99; i > 0; ++i)
    {
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n", i);
    printf("%d slabs of spam,\n", i);
    printf("Send one to abuse and Just Hit Delete,\n");
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n\n", i + 1);
    }

The One True Brace Style did a good job of being thrifty with lines of screen space when monitors were small, but it is confusing now: the close curly brace is visually grouped with lines that follow: if I add a line:

for(i = 99; i > 0; ++i) {
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n", i);
    printf("%d slabs of spam,\n", i);
    printf("Send one to abuse and Just Hit Delete,\n");
    printf("%d slabs of spam in my mail!\n\n", i + 1);
}
printf("I suppose even integer overflow has its uses...\n");

the close curly brace is visually grouped with the subsequent exclamation, and not, what would be better, visually grouped with the drinking song’s stanza.

But the issue goes beyond the fact that the common style bold enough to proclaim itself as the One True Brace Style may not be the top usability pick now that we have larger monitors. The styles I mentioned are some of the styles that significant numbers of programmers who care about well-formatted code advocate for; freeform allows for laziness, and for that matter paved the way for one of the first contests elevating bad programming to a refined art form: the International Obfuscated C Code Contest, where C code submitted was code that worked, but top-notch C programmers look at the code and have no idea how it works. (In the Computer Bowl one year, Bill Gates as moderator asked contestants, “What contest, held annually via UseNet, is devoted to examples of obscure, bizarre, incomprehensible, and really bad programming?” An ex-Apple honcho slapped the buzzer and said, “Windows!” The look on Bill Gates’s face was classic, but this answer was not accepted as correct.) But deliberately lazy or inappropriately clever formatting isn’t the real problem here either.

The problem with the fact that people can format freeform code however they want is that people do format freeform however they want. Not only do programmers grow attached to a formatting style, but this is the subject of holy wars; to go through another programmer’s code and change all the formatting to another brace style is quite rude, like a direct invasion of personal space. And no matter what choice you make, it’s not the only choice out there, and sooner or later you will run into code that is formatted differently. And worse than the flaws of any one brace style are the flaws of a mix of brace styles and the fact that they seem to be tied to personal investment for programmers who care about writing code well. Even if there are not ego issues involved, it’s distracting. Like. What. Things. Would. Be. Like. If. Some. English. Text. Had. Every. Word. Capitalized. With. A. Period. Afterwards.

One way of writing the same code in Python would be:

count = 99
while count > 0:
    print u'%d slabs of spam in my mail!' % count
    print u'%d slabs of spam,' % count
    print u'Send one to abuse and Just Hit Delete,'
    count += 1
    print u'%d slabs of spam in my mail!' % count
    print u''

The braces are gone, and with them the holy wars. Whatever brace styles Python programmers may happen to use in languages with braces, all the Python code looks the same, and while the major brace styles illustrated above are a few of many ways the C code could be laid out, there’s only one real way to do it. It would not in principle be very difficult to write a program that would transform freeform syntax to Python, “compiling to Python” so to speak and allowing a freeform variant on Python, but so far as I know it’s never been done; people who have gotten into Python seem to find this unusual feature, shared with some ridiculed predecessors, to be a decision that was done right. And in fact the essay “Why Python?” in which Eric Raymond said that Python’s significant whitespace made the first impression of a “steaming pile of dinosaur dung”, goes on to give Python some singular compliments, saying of one particular good experience with Python, “To say I was astonished would have been positively wallowing in understatement.”

Another point about usability may be made by looking at “natural” languages, meaning the kinds of languages people speak (such as English), as opposed to computer languages and other languages that have been artificially created. Perl is very unusual among computer languages in terms of having been created by a linguist who understood natural languages well; it may be the only well-known programming language where questions like “How would this work if it were someone’s native language?” are a major consideration that shaped the language. But there is a point to be made here about two different types of spoken languages, trade languages and languages that are native languages, that have everything to do with usability.

If you were born in the U.S. and grew up speaking English, you could presumably not just travel around your state but travel thousands of miles, traveling from state to state coast to coast all the while being able to buy food, fuel, lodging, and the like without language being an issue. For that matter, you could probably strike up a meandering chat with locals you meet in obtaining food, fuel, and lodging without language being an issue. Even if their faraway English sounded a little different, you have pretty complete coverage if you know just one language, English. For many people you meet, English would be their native language, too. Spanish is widely spoken and there are large groups with other native languages, but this does not really change the fact that you can travel from coast to coast, buy basic travel necessities, and for that matter chat if you want and only need English.

This is not something universal across the world. Nigeria in Africa is a country about the size of Texas, and it doesn’t have a native language; it has hundreds of them. It is not at all something to be taken for granted that you can travel twenty miles and order food and basic necessities in your native language. (Depending on where you live, if you are a Nigerian, you may regularly walk by people on the street who may be just as Nigerian as you, but neither of you knows the other’s native language.) And in the cultures and peoples of Africa, there is a basic phenomenon of a trade language. A trade language, such as Hausa in Nigeria and much of West Africa, or Swahili in much of East Africa, may or may not have any native speakers at all, but it is an easy-to-learn language that you can use for basic needs with people who do not speak your native language. If you are from the U.S. and were to need a trade language to get along with traveling, perhaps neither you nor the other party would know a trade language like Swahili well enough to have a long and meandering chat, but you would be able to handle basic exchanges like buying things you need. One of the key features of a good trade language’s job description is to be gentle to people who do not eat, sleep, and breathe it.

With that stated, it might be suggested that Perl is the creation of a linguist, but a linguist who seemed not to be thinking about why a language like English is hard for adults to learn and, in its native form, is a terrible trade language. English may be a powerful language and an object of beauty, but what it is not is easy for beginners the way Swahili is. English is considered an almost notoriously difficult language for an adult learner, and even English as a Second Language teachers may need a few sensitivity experiences to understand why the English pronunciation that they find second nature is so tricky and confusing for adult speakers of other languages to pin down. The enormous English vocabulary with so many ways to say things, and the broad collection of idioms, are tremendous tools for the skilled English communicator. It is also a daunting obstacle to adults who need to learn the many ways English speakers may say something to them. English has many things to appreciate as a native language, but these strengths are the opposite of what makes for a good trade language that adults can learn. Perl, designed by a linguist, is a bit like English in this regard. If you’ve given it years and years of hard work, Perl breathes very attractively, a native language to love. But if you’re starting out, it’s needlessly cryptic and confusing: the reasons people love the Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister (as Perl as called by its biggest fans) are reasons it would make a painful trade language. A language like Visual Basic may be said to be the opposite on both counts, as making a very gentle start to programming, but not a good place to grow to be an expert programmer: the sort of place where you’ll be constricted by the language’s ceiling. But Python pulls off the delicate balancing act of working well as a trade language where a programmer can be productive very quickly after starting, and having room to grow for those programmers who are able to experience it more like a native language. Visual Basic is an easy trade language but a limited native language. Perl is a vast native language and painfully vast as a trade language. Python is both an easy trade language for those beginning and a deep native language for gurus.

Perl users have an acronym, TMTOWTDI, pronounced “tim-towdy,” standing for “There’s more than one way to do it.” It has been suggested that top-notch Perl programmers are slightly more productive than top-notch Python programmers, and if you were to speak a computer language natively, Perl would be an excellent choice. But it is not entirely easy to learn or read Perl, and this is not just something that affects novices. A classic joke reads:

EXTERIOR: DAGOBAH–DAY With Yoda strapped to his back, Luke climbs up one of the many thick vines that grow in the swamp until he reaches the Dagobah statistics lab. Panting heavily, he continues his exercises–grepping, installing new packages, logging in as root, and writing replacements for two-year-old shell scripts in Python.

YODA: Code! Yes. A programmer’s strength flows from code maintainability. But beware of Perl. Terse syntax… more than one way to do it… default variables. The dark side of code maintainability are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you when code you write. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.

LUKE: Is Perl better than Python?

YODA: No… no… no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

LUKE: But how will I know why Python is better than Perl?

YODA: You will know. When your code you try to read six months from now.

This difference boils down to usability. It is a truism that code is read many more times than it is written, and write-only code is very much “the dark side of code maintainability.” Someone said, “Computer scientists stand on each other’s shoulders. Programmers stand on one another’s toes. Software engineers dig one another’s graves,” and write-only code is code with bad programmer usability, and a way of digging your own grave.

Perl carries on a tradition of one-liners, a program that has only one clever line, like:

perl -lne '(1x$_) !~ /^1?$|^(11+?)\1+$/ && print "$_ is prime"'

There is a tradition of writing programs like these that show off your cleverness. The Python community does not favor shows of cleverness in quite the same way; in fact, saying, “This code is clever,” is a respectful and diplomatic way of saying, “You blew it.” There is a well-known Easter egg in Python; normally one uses the import statement to let code access an existing module for a specific task, but if you start the Python interpreter interactively (in itself a powerful learning tool to try things out and learn some things quickly) and type import this, you get:

>>> import this
The Zen of Python, by Tim Peters

Beautiful is better than ugly.
Explicit is better than implicit.
Simple is better than complex.
Complex is better than complicated.
Flat is better than nested.
Sparse is better than dense.
Readability counts.
Special cases aren't special enough to break the rules.
Although practicality beats purity.
Errors should never pass silently.
Unless explicitly silenced.
In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess.
There should be one-- and preferably only one --obvious way to do it.
Although that way may not be obvious at first unless you're Dutch.
Now is better than never.
Although never is often better than *right* now.
If the implementation is hard to explain, it's a bad idea.
If the implementation is easy to explain, it may be a good idea.
Namespaces are one honking great idea -- let's do more of those!

This little poem speaks against trying to be as clever as you can, and this is something deep in Python’s veins.

While simplicity is important in Python, Python is a multiparadigm language (like many others, including Ocaml and JavaScript as well as Perl) and directly supports procedural, object-oriented, and (in part) functional programming, letting the programmer choose what works best for a situation. On this point I may point out that object oriented programming is not a better way of solving problems than procedural programming; it is one that scales better for larger projects. I would choose object oriented methodology over procedural for large projects, and procedural over object oriented for small to intermediate sized projects, with some tiny projects not even needing procedural structure. (If I have enough cargo to fill the trailer on an eighteen wheel truck, then the most efficient use of resources is to pay for that way of transporting the payload, but if the cargo fits neatly inside an envelope, a postage stamp is enough.)

Let’s look at some of the core language features that are likely to come up.

Python is a scripting language, along with such languages as Perl, PHP, Ruby, Tcl, and shell scripting like bash. As opposed to C and C++ which are compiled to a standalone executable (or library, etc.), Python is interpreted from a script’s source file, or more precisely compiled to a bytecode. To simplify slightly, “the thing you run” is usually not a separate executable that is derived from the source code; “the thing you run” is effectively the source code. Now Python does have compiled bytecode, and it is possible to get an implementation of Python that runs on a Java VM or creates a standalone executable, but distributing a Python program or library usually means distributing the source code. Because in Python we are effectively “running the source code,” this usually means a faster feedback cycle than the edit-compile-test process one uses in working with a C application. For some Python software such as CherryPy, if you make a change in one of your source files, the application immediately reloads it without needing separately quit and restart, making the feedback cycle even shorter and more responsive.

The “significant whitespace” mentioned earlier means that a statement usually ends with a line break rather than a semicolon. You are allowed to add a semicolon at the end of a statement or use semicolons to separate more than one statement on a single line; hence both of the following are legal:

print u'Hello, world!';
print u'Ping!'; print u'Pong!'

However, the standard practice is to let line breaks end your statements:

print u'Hello, world!'

Note that this differs from JavaScript, where the final semicolon on a line is treated as optional but it is usually considered best practice to explicitly include the semicolon. In Python, it is uncommon to end a statement with a semicolon.

If you want to break a statement over multiple lines, usually because it would be a very long line otherwise, you can end a line with a backslash, and then continue after whitespace, which I suggest you indent to two spaces more than the beginning of the line:

print \
  u'Hello, world!'

There are some cases where the backslash is optional and discouraged: in particular, if you have open parentheses or square/curly braces, Python expects you to complete the statement with more lines:

stooges = [
  u'Larry',
  u'Moe',
  u'Curly',
  ]

opposites = {
  True: False,
  False: True,
  }

falsy = (
  False,
  0,
  0.0,
  '',
  u'',
  {},
  [],
  (),
  None,
  )

The three statements above represent three basic types: the list, the dictionary, also called the hash, dict, or occasionally associative array, and also the tuple. The list, denoted by square braces (“[]”) and tuple, which is often surrounded by parentheses (“()”) even though it is not strictly denoted by them unless a tuple is empty, both contain an ordered list of anything. The difference between them is that a tuple is immutable, meaning that the list of elements cannot be changed, and a list is mutable, meaning that it can be changed, and more specifically elements can be rearranged, added, and deleted, none of which can be done to a tuple. Lists and tuples are both indexed, with counting beginning at zero, so that the declaration of stooges above could have been replaced by creating an empty list and assigning members:

stooges = []
stooges[0] = u'Larry'
stooges[1] = u'Moe'
stooges[2] = u'Curly'

I will comment briefly that zero-based indices, while they are a common feature to most major languages, confuse newcomers: it takes a while for beginning programmers to gain the ingrained habit of “You don’t start counting at 1; you start counting at 0.”

The dictionary is a like a list, but instead of the index automatically being a whole number, the index can be anything that is immutable. Part of my first introduction to Perl was the statement, “You’re not really thinking Perl until you’re thinking associative arrays,” meaning what in Perl does the same job as Python’s dictionary, and lists and dictionaries in particular are powerful structures that can do a lot of useful work.

The example of a tuple provided above are some of the few values that evaluate to false. In code like:

if condition:
    run_function()
else:
    run_other_function()
while condition:
    run_function()

The if and while statements test if condition is true, and the variable condition can be anything a variable can hold. Not only boolean variables but numbers, strings, lists, dictionaries, tuples, and objects can be used as a condition. The rule is basically similar to Perl. A very small number of objects, meaning the boolean False, numeric variables that are zero, containers like lists and dictionaries that are empty, and a few objects that have a method like __nonzero__(), __bool__(), or __len__() defined a certain way, are treated as being falsy, meaning that an if statement will skip the if clause and execute the else clause if one is provided; and a while statement will stop running (or not run in the first place). Essentially everything else is treated as being truthy, meaning that an if statement will run the if clause and skip any else clause, and a while loop will run for one complete iteration and then check its condition again to see if it should continue or stop. (Note that there is a behavior that is shared with other programming languages but surprising to people learning to program: if the condition becomes false after some of the statements in the loop has run, the loop does not stop immediately; it continues until all of the statements in that iteration have run, and then the condition is checked to see if the loop should run for another iteration.) Additionally, if, else, while, and the like end with a colon and do not require parentheses. In C/C++/Java, one might write:

if (remaining > 0)

In Python, the equivalent code is:

if remaining > 0:

If-then-else chains in Python use the elif statement:

if first_condition:
    first_function()
elif second_condition:
    second_function()
elif third_condition:
    third_function()
else:
    default_function()

Any of the example indented statements could be replaced by several statements, indented to the same level; this is also the case with other constructs like while. In addition to if/else/elif and while, Python has a for loop. In C, the following idiom is used to do something to each element in array, with C++ and Java following a similar pattern:

sum = 0;
for(i = 0; i < LENGTH; ++i)
    {
    sum += numbers[i];
    }

In Python one still uses for, but manually counting through indices is not such an important idiom:

sum = 0
for number in numbers:
    sum += number

The for statement can also be used when the data in question isn’t something you handle by an integer index. For example:

phone_numbers = {
  u'Alice Jones': u'(800) 555-1212',
  u'Bob Smith': u'(888) 555-1212',
  }

In this case the dictionary is a telephone directory, mapping names to telephone numbers. The key “Alice Jones” can be used to look up the value “(800) 555-1212”, her formatted telephone number: if in the code you write, print phone_numbers[u’Alice Jones’], Python will do a lookup and print her number, “(800) 555-1212”. If you use for to go through a dictionary, Python will loop through the keys, which you can use to find the values and know which key goes with which value. To print out the phone list, you could write:

for name in phone_numbers:
    print name + u': ' + phone_numbers[name]

This will print out an easy-to-read directory:

Alice Jones: (800) 555-1212
Bob Smith: (888) 555-1212

Now let us look at strings. In the examples above, we have looked at Unicode strings, and this is for a reason. If you are in the U.S., you may have seen signs saying, “Se habla español,” Spanish for “We speak Spanish here,” or “Hablamos español,” Spanish for “We don’t speak Spanish very well.” The difference is something like the difference in Python between:

sum = 0
for number in numbers:
    sum += number

and:

sum = 0
index = 0
while index < len(numbers):
    sum += numbers[index]
    index += 1

Now if one is sticking large block letters on a sign in front of a store, it is acceptable to state, “SE HABLA ESPANOL”; it’s appropriate to use an “N” because you don’t have any “ñ”s, a bit like how it doesn’t bother people to use a “1” because you’ve run out of “I”s or an upside-down “W” because you’ve run out of “M”s. And to pick another language, Greeks often seem willing to write in Greek using the same alphabet as English; this is the equivalent of writing “Hi, how are you?” in English but written with Greek letters: “αι ου αρ ιυ:” it works pretty well once you get used to it, but it’s really nice to have your own alphabet.

There is one concern people may have: “So how many translations do I have to provide?” I would suggest this way of looking at it. The people in charge of major software projects often try to produce fully internationalized and localized versions of their software that appears native for dozens of languages, but even they can’t cover every single language: if you support several dozen languages, that may be full support for 1% of the languages that exist. Even the really big players can’t afford an “all-or-nothing” victory. But the good news is that we don’t need to take an “all-or-nothing” approach. Russians, for instance, are often content to use forum software that has an interface and a few other things in English, and most of the discussion material in Russian. Perhaps the best thing to offer is a fully translated and localized Russian version of the forum, but many Russians will really do quite well if there is a good interface in English, and if the forum displays Russian discussions without garbling the text or giving errors.

The most basic of the best practices for internationalization and localization is to choose Unicode over ASCII strings. ASCII lets you handle text in a way that works for American English; Unicode lets you handle text in a way that works for pretty much everybody. Working with Unicode strings is similar to working with ASCII strings, but once you use Unicode, you can store information people enter in other languages for free.

In Python code, an ASCII string looks like ‘foo’ or “foo”, and a Unicode string has a ‘u’ before the opening quote, like u’foo’ or u”foo”. Strings may be marked off by either double or single quotes, and a triple double quote or triple single quote can be used to mark a multiline string (which can contain double or single quotes anywhere except for possibly the last character):

print u'''Content-type: text/html

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en">
'''

The only gotchas are that you cannot include the same triple quotation mark delimiter, and if the last character of the string is the same kind of character, it needs to be escaped with a backslash, like: u”’This string ends with an apostrophe: \””.

Probably the next step to internationalization after using Unicode strings is, instead of storing the interface language in your code like:

print u'Please enter your email address below:'

you would instead do string look-ups that would pull the appropriate translation:

print translate(messages.PLEASE_ENTER_YOUR_EMAIL_ADDRESS_BELOW)

If you do this, the only language that needs to initially be supported is your own, perhaps tested by a second language, but then you don’t need to do major rewrites to support a second language, or a third, fourth, or twelfth. Maybe that wouldn’t be a perfect localization, but it’s another major step, and it’s not too hard.

Having looked at that, let’s look at another topic: exceptions and errors. Exceptions are thrown when something doesn’t work ideally, and usually you want to catch them. The basic idea is that plan A didn’t work and you should have a plan B.

For example, suppose that you have a string value that’s supposed to be an integer displayed as a string, like u’1′. Suppose further that you want to get the integer out of the string, but default to 0 if parsing fails (for instance, u’one’ will not be parsed as an integer). Then you can write:

try:
    result = int(input)
except ValueError:
    result = 0

This code says that plan A is to get an appropriate integer value out of the input, and plan B is to set a default of 0. This kind of thing is very appropriate in dealing with the web, where you should assume that input is inappropriate and possibly malicious until proven otherwise. If you write a web script that asks people to enter their age, and someone hits two keys at once and enters an age of u’22w’, you need to be able to roll with it-and this is nothing next to what might happen if someone is acting maliciously. In working on the web, there may be ideal input that you intend, but both from a usability and a security perspective you need to be able to respond appropriately to input that was not what you intended. If you only type:

result = int(input)

your whole program will break on even an innocent typo like entering u’22w’ when asked for their age.

Exceptions are important in Python. In Java and some other languages, recommended best practices say, “Exceptions should not be used for regular flow control.” In other words, an exception is only appropriate for a very rare case when something very unusual has happened. That is not how Python works, and exceptions are a commonly used way of saying “the ideal case didn’t happen.” Perhaps you have seen the famous “Mom’s Brownie Recipe” on the web:

    • Remove teddy bear from oven and preheat oven to 375.
    • Melt 1-cup margarine in saucepan.
    • Remove teddy bear from oven and tell JR. “no, no.”
    • Add margarine to 2 cups sugar.
    • Take shortening can away from JR. and clean cupboards.
    • Measure 1/3-cup cocoa.
    • Take shortening can away from JR. again and bathe cat.
    • Apply antiseptic and bandages to scratches sustained while removing shortening from cat’s tail.
    • Assemble 4 eggs, 2-tsp. vanilla, and 1-1/2 cups sifted flour.

Take smoldering teddy bear from oven and open all doors and windows for ventilation.

  • Take telephone away from Billy and assure party on the line the call was a mistake.
  • Call operator and attempt to have direct dialed call removed from bill.
  • Measure 1-tsp. salt & a cup nuts and beat all ingredients well.
  • Let cat out of refrigerator.
  • Pour mixture into well-greased 9×13-inch pan.
  • Bake 25 minutes.
  • Rescue cat and take razor away from Billy.
  • Explain to kids that you have no idea if shaved cats will sunburn.
  • Throw cat outside while there’s still time and he’s still able to run away.
  • Mix the following in saucepan: 1 cup sugar, 1 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 cup margarine.
  • Take the teddy bear out of the broiler and throw it away—far away.
  • Answer the door and meekly explain to nice police officer that you didn’t know JR. had slipped out of the house and was heading for the street.
  • Put JR. in playpen.
  • Add 1/3-cup milk, dash of salt, and boil, stirring constantly for 2 minutes.
  • Answer the door and apologize to neighbor for Billy having stuck a garden hose in man’s front door mail slot. Promise to pay for ruined carpet.
  • Tie Billy to clothesline.
  • Remove burned brownies from oven.
  • Start on dinner!

Because people are intelligent, you can write a recipe book and describe only the ideal case. When you’re programming, you need to be able to say, “This is plan A; this is plan B if plan A doesn’t work; this is plan C if plan B doesn’t work.” You can’t just say, “Gather these ingredients, mix, and bake;” you need all the except clauses like, “Remove teddy bear from oven…”

In addition to try and except, there is a finally clause which follows the try clause and any except clauses, and is to be executed whether or not an exception was caught. It can appear:

try:
    output_message(warning)
finally:
    log_message(warning)

or:

try:
    result = items[0]
except IndexError:
    result = 0
finally:
    return result

One note to be given: it can be appropriate to put pass in an except clause, so we have:

total = 0
for input in inputs:
    try:
        total += int(input)
    except ValueError:
        pass

If you are making a running sum, it may be appropriate to ignore a specific error like this. But it is begging trouble to do:

try:
    first_method()
    second_method()
    third_method()
except:
    pass

This use of except: is a bit like the goto statement; it offers convenience at the beginning and can bring headaches down the road. What it says is, “Try to run these three methods; if anything goes wrong, just ignore it and move on.” And this is a recipe to bake JR’s teddy bear at 375 and then be left wondering why the house is so full of foul-smelling smoke: proper exception handling removes the teddy bear from the oven, repeatedly if need be, instead of just boldly ignoring problems that need to be addressed properly.

This can mean that, even if we expect we will mainly just write code for the ideal case, we may have to write a significant amount of code for non-ideal cases.

How do you create functions, procedures, and methods in Python? The function/procedure distinction that exists in C, where a function returns a value and a procedure does not, is not as prominent and Python programmers do not usually speak of “procedures.” If a function completes without returning a value, or returns without specifying a value, it returns the special value None, which is like an SQL NULL value. (Or a function can explicitly return None). The following three functions are equivalent; they take no arguments and return None:

def first():
    pass
def second():
    return
def third():
    return None

A function’s required arguments are named; their type is not specified.

def ternary(condition, first_option, second_option):
    if condition:
        return first_option
    else:
        return second_option

I might note that in Python, the common ternary operator that appears in C/C++/Java like a > b ? a : b, is not a built-in structure in Python. There are some somewhat hackish ways Pythonistas use to fake it, notably a > b and a or b, but besides reading somewhat strangely, they run into problems a bit like C macros, where the C macro MAX(a, b) defined to a > b ? a : b will double-increment the selected argument if invoked as MAX(++c, ++d). In Python, a ternary operator like a > b and a or b can malfunction if its middle argument is falsy; it is more robust to write (a > b and [a] or [b])[0], at a significant cost to Pythonic ease in reading and understanding.

Returning to functions, it is possible to specify default values, as in:

def parse(input, default = 0):
    try:
        return int(input)
    except ValueError:
        return default

This code somewhat flexibly parses string/unicode input for an integer value, returning a default if it cannot be parsed. If invoked like parse(text), it will default to 0 in the case of a parse failure; if invoked like parse(text, 1), it will default to another value, such as 1, and if invoked like parse(text, None), the result can be examined for a parse failure: it will hold an integer if parsing was successful and the (non-integer) value None in the case of failure.

If a function has two or more arguments with default values, unnamed arguments are specified from left to right. Hence a function of:

def name_pets(dog = None, cat = None, bunny = None):
    result = []
    if dog:
        result.append(u'I have a dog named ' + dog + u'.')
    if cat:
        result.append(u'I have a cat named ' + cat + u'.')
    if bunny:
        result.append(u'I have a bunny named ' + bunny + u'.')
    return u'\n'.join(result)

Now there are a couple of things going on. name_pets(u’Goldie’) will return, u’I have a dog named Goldie.’ That is, the first argument will be assigned to dog, and name_pets(u’Jazz’, u’Zappy’) will correspondingly name the dog “Jazz” and the cat “Zappy.” But what if you want to name a cat but not a dog? Then you can explicitly name the argument: name_pets(cat=u’Guybrush’) will specify the value of the cat argument while leaving dog and bunny to have their default values.

That is one thing going on; there is something else going on with strings. If you have more than one pet, this method will place a line break between each sentence. It is common practice to build up a long string by creating an initially empty list, and then bit by bit build up the contents of the string in the list. Usually you can just stick them all together by u”.join(buffer), but if you choose another string, like u’\n’ here, then that other string is the glue that joins the pieces, and you get a line break between each sentence here.

You can specify an open-ended number of arguments, with a single asterisk before the last argument name, like:

def teach(teacher, course_name = None, *students):
    result = []
    result.append(u'This class is being taught by ' + teacher + u'.')
    if course_name != None:
        result.append(u'The name of the course is "' + course_name + u'."')
    for student in students:
        result.append(student + u' is a student in this course.')
    return u'\n'.join(result)

If invoked just as teach(u’Prof. Jones’), the result will be one line: u’This class is being taught by Prof. Jones.’. But if invoked as print teach(u’Prof. Jones’, u’Archaeology 101′, u’Alice’, u’Bob’, u’Charlie’), the output will be:

This class is being taught by Prof. Jones.
The name of the course is "Archaeology 101."
Alice is a student in this course.
Bob is a student in this course.
Charlie is a student in this course.

The last way arguments can be specified is by keyword arguments, where any arguments given by keyword that have not been otherwise claimed in the argument list are passed into a dictionary. So if we define a function:

def listing(**keywords):
    for key in keywords:
        print key + u': ' + keywords[key]

If we then call listing(name=’Alice’, phone='(800) 555-1212′, email=’alice@example.com’), it should print out something like:

phone: (800) 555-1212
name: Alice
email: alice@example.com

As an aside, note that the arguments appear in a different order than they were given. Unlike a normal list where you should be able to get things in a fixed order, elements in a dictionary should not be expected to be in any particular order: nothing in the dictionary’s job description says that it should give back first the name, then the phone number, then the email. You are welcome to sort the keys where appropriate if you want them in alphabetical order:

def alphabetical_listing(**keywords):
    keys = keywords.keys()
    keys.sort()
    for key in keys:
        print key + u': ' + keywords[key]

If you then call alphabetical_listing(name=’Alice’, phone='(800) 555-1212′, email=’alice@example.com’), you should then get the keys in fixed alphabetical order:

email: alice@example.com
name: Alice
phone: (800) 555-1212

You can have any combination, or none, of these ways of accepting an argument. If you use all of them, it should be like:

def example(required, default = u'default value', *arguments, **keywords):

Before leaving the topic of functions, I would like to mention that there are a couple of ways in which you can speak of a function returning more than one value, both of which are useful, and both of which are supported in Python. One way, which happens to be implemented by a tuple, is useful if you want to return (for instance) both a status code and a text description of the status. Let’s return to the task of parsing integers. We can write:

def parse(input, default = 0):
    try:
        return int(input), 1, u'Parsed successfully.'
    except ValueError:
        return default, 0, u'Parsing failed.'

There are a couple of ways these multiple results could be unpacked; one is:

value, status, explanation = parse(input)

But there is another sense in which you may want a generator that can keep on returning values. There is a classic story in mathematics in which one famous mathematician, as a boy, was in class and the teacher wanted some time and so decided to give the students a time-consuming task to keep them busy. And so the teacher told the students to add up the numbers from 1 to 100. And the future mathematician tried to figure out how to do things the smart way, realizing that if you add 1 and 100 you get 101; if you add 2 and 99 you also get 101, if you add 3 and 98 you get the exact same thing. If you pair the numbers like that, you have 50 pairs that have the same sum, 101, and so the grand total has to be 50 * 101 = 5050. And this is the number he gave the teacher. (The teacher, seeing that he had the correct answer so quickly, assumed that the boy must have cheated and gave him a spanking as his just reward.)

Based on this realization, there is a simple mathematical formula to calculate the sum of the first n positive integers: the sum is equal to n * (n + 1) / 2. But let us suppose we did not know that, and we wished to manually check what the result was. It turns out that there is a better and a worse way to calculate the sum of the numbers from 1 to 10,000,000,000. The bad way is:

sum = 0
for number in range(1, 10000000001):
    sum += number

And the good way is:

sum = 0
for number in xrange(1, 10000000001):
    sum += number

What’s the difference? The only surface difference is the letter ‘x’. But there is a major difference. It’s not primarily about speed; both are painfully slow, especially if you compare them to calculating 10000000000 * (10000000000 + 1) / 2, which is lightning fast. But the first one, the one with range(), creates a list with a staggering ten billion integers; a workstation with eight gigs of RAM doesn’t have nearly enough memory to hold the list, and if you try to run it, you may well observe your computer slow to a crawl as more and more memory is used just to create that one array. But the one with xrange() uses very little memory because it is a generator that produces the numbers as needed but never creates an enormous list. Something like xrange() can be implemented for our purposes as:

def xrange(first_number, second_number = None):
    if second_number == None:
        bottom = 0
        top = first_number
    else:
        bottom = first_number
        top = second_number
    current = bottom
    while current < top:
        yield current
        current += 1

The yield statement is like a return statement, except that the function yielding a value keeps on going. What xrange(1, 10000000001) does is keep on yielding the next counting number until it reaches its limit and it has nothing more to yield, but it doesn’t use very much memory itself, and using it like for number in xrange(1, 101) also doesn’t take that much memory. Using xrange() to calculate a very large sum may be very slow, but it won’t make everything else running on your whole computer grind to a halt by exhausting all available memory, and then crash without giving you a result.

There is one point we would like to stop on: depending on some prior language, some experienced programmers may be thinking, “Wait, did you try this? Isn’t that going to overflow?” And in fact it does give the correct result if we do it in Python:

>>> print 10000000000 * (10000000000 + 1) / 2
50000000005000000000

This result is correct, but C programmers, as well as C++ and Java programmers, may have a conditioned reflex: in C, for instance, just as a string buffer is an array of characters with a fixed length, integer types have a maximum and minimum possible value, and you may be able to choose an integer type with a bigger range, but there is always an arbitrary line, and if you cross it you get an overflow error that causes incorrect results. If we write in C:

#include <stdio.h>

int main()
    {
    long top;
    scanf("%ld", &top);
    printf("%ld\n", top * (top + 1) / 2);
    return 0;
    }

The code correctly gives 5050 if we give it a value of 100, just like Python, but if we give the original ten billion, we get, incorrectly:

3883139820726120960

Python turns out to have just as much an arbitrarily threshold as C, but the difference is that if you trigger an overflow, instead of continuing on with garbage results, Python quietly substitutes a type that will give correct results for any number that will fit in memory. So, if you ask for the number that Google is named after, ten multiplied by itself a hundred times, Python will handle the request correctly:

<<< print 10 ** 100
10000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

You can ask Python to handle integers millions of digits long, and while it may run more slowly, Python will happily continue to give correct results as long as it can fit your numbers in memory.

This, as with strings and lists, is an example of how Python follows the zero-one-infinity rule: to quote the jargon file:

“Allow none of foo, one of foo, or any number of foo.” A rule of thumb for software design, which instructs one to not place random limits on the number of instances of a given entity (such as: windows in a window system, letters in an OS’s filenames, etc.). Specifically, one should either disallow the entity entirely, allow exactly one instance (an “exception”), or allow as many as the user wants – address space and memory permitting.

The logic behind this rule is that there are often situations where it makes clear sense to allow one of something instead of none. However, if one decides to go further and allow N (for N > 1), then why not N+1? And if N+1, then why not N+2, and so on? Once above 1, there’s no excuse not to allow any N; hence, infinity.

Many hackers recall in this connection Isaac Asimov’s SF novel The Gods Themselves in which a character announces that the number 2 is impossible – if you’re going to believe in more than one universe, you might as well believe in an infinite number of them.

Here Python observes a principle that you should observe in what you pass on to your users. In terms of user interface design, for the iPhone to allow exactly one application at a time and for the Droid to allow multiple applications are both sensible approaches: perhaps the Droid marketing campaign insists that we need to run multiple apps, but for a long time the iPhone, designed to run one app at a time, was an uncontested darling. But what was not a correct decision was for the iPhone web browser to be able to have up to eight windows open, but not nine or more. If you are going to make a web interface that allows the user to upload files, you don’t want to say, “I don’t know exactly how many the user will want, so I’m deciding five is probably enough;” you start with one file upload input and add a button that creates another file upload input, and lets the user keep adding as many files as are wanted. Or, depending on context, you may create an interface that allows the user to upload at most one file as an avatar, or you may write an opinion survey in which uploading files does not make sense as part of the design. Zero, one, and infinity each have their places.

Python does not require you to do object-oriented programming, but in Python everything is an object. Functions are first-class objects and can be treated as such. Unlike Java, the humble integer is an object. dir() is a function that lists all of the methods of an object: if at the interpreter you call dir() on the integer 1, you get:

>>> dir(1)
['__abs__', '__add__', '__and__', '__class__', '__cmp__', '__coerce__',
'__delattr__', '__div__', '__divmod__', '__doc__', '__float__', '__floordiv__',
'__format__', '__getattribute__', '__getnewargs__', '__hash__', '__hex__',
'__index__', '__init__', '__int__', '__invert__', '__long__', '__lshift__',
'__mod__', '__mul__', '__neg__', '__new__', '__nonzero__', '__oct__', '__or__',
'__pos__', '__pow__', '__radd__', '__rand__', '__rdiv__', '__rdivmod__',
'__reduce__', '__reduce_ex__', '__repr__', '__rfloordiv__', '__rlshift__',
'__rmod__', '__rmul__', '__ror__', '__rpow__', '__rrshift__', '__rshift__',
'__rsub__', '__rtruediv__', '__rxor__', '__setattr__', '__sizeof__', '__str__',
'__sub__', '__subclasshook__', '__truediv__', '__trunc__', '__xor__',
'conjugate', 'denominator', 'imag', 'numerator', 'real']

Methods with names like __add__() are methods you can create or override for operator overloading; without attempting to explain all of these methods, I will briefly observe that not only is an integer like 1 an object, it is an object that supports quite a number of methods.

Python’s objects are in some ways like Java and in some ways like JavaScript: Python objects come from full-fledged classes like Java, but are more dynamic: fields and methods can be deleted from a Python object on the fly, like JavaScript, even though inheritance is classical and not prototypal. The typing is so-called “duck typing”: if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck, and we have already seen one instance of duck typing at work: if an integer computation overflows, Python deftly substitutes another class that walks like the basic integer class and quacks like the basic integer class, but can handle millions of digits or more as long as you have enough memory and processor time. In Java, it is usually preferred practice to choose object composition over multiple inheritance; in Python, it is usually preferred practice to choose multiple inheritance over object composition.

The simplest example of a class is:

class simple:
    pass

An instance of this class can be created as:

instance = simple()

A somewhat more ornate example would be:

class counter(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self.value = 0
    def increment(self):
        self.value += 1
    def reset(self):
        self.value = 0

This is a working, if not necessarily advisable, counter class. The first argument to each of its methods is self (N.B. self, rather than this), and the class has one instance variable, defined in the __init__() method called in initialization, although it could just as well have many or none. What if we wanted to make the member field private? The short answer is, we can’t, and we don’t really want to. We could legitimately follow a convention that a member with a leading underscore in its name, _like_this instead of like_this, is a part of the present private implementation, does not represent in any sense the public API, and is subject to change or removal at any time. Rewritten that way, our class would look like this:

class counter(object):
    def __init__(self):
        self._value = 0
    def get_value(self):
        return self._value
    def increment(self):
        self._value += 1
    def reset(self):
        self._value = 0

But this way of solving things makes more sense in Java than Python; in Java it is recommended practice to make most or all instance variables private and then define corresponding getters and setters, and perhaps build a counter class that let you guarantee it could only be incremented, read, and optionally reset. It’s not just that the solution we have built works a bit more like Java than Python, but the problem we were addressing in the first place works more like Java than Python. Truer to the spirit of Python would be to use an integer and avoid the work of creating a class, let alone accessor methods.

A more Pythonic example might be a simple way to list tags in a webpage. It’s longer than our counter class, but not all that much longer:

#!/usr/bin/python

import re
import urllib2

class webpage(object):
    def __init__(self, url = None):
        self.initialized = False
        if url:
            self.load_url(url)

    def __nonzero__(self):
        return self.initialized

    def list_tags(self):
        if self.initialized:
            result = []
            for tag in re.findall(ur'<(\w+)', self.text, re.DOTALL):
                if tag.lower() not in result:
                    result.append(tag.lower())
            result.sort()
            return result
        else:
            raise Exception(u'No webpage is loaded.')

    def load_url(self, url):
        try:
            text = urllib2.urlopen(url).read()
            self.url = url
            self.text = text
            self.initialized = True
            return True
        except URLError:
            return False

if __name__ == u'__main__':
    page = webpage(u'http://CJSHayward.com/')
    if page:
        print page.list_tags()
    else:
        print u'The page could not be loaded.'

A few remarks about the very top: the top line, “#!/usr/bin/python”, tells Unix, Linux, and OS X systems that this is to be run as a Python program; if you intend at all to distribute your scripts, you should put this at the top. (It won’t do anything bad on a Windows system.)

At the beginning a couple of modules from the standard library are imported. urllib2 can fetch web and other URL’s, and re provides regular expressions.

This class can be initialized or uninitialized; if you ask for an analysis when it is not initialized, it raises an exception. Note that it considers itself fully initialized and set up, not necessarily when its __init__() method has been called, but when it has loaded a URL successfully.

There are a couple of conditions where a webpage object might not be initialized once the __init__() constructor has returned. The URL is an optional parameter, so it might not have passed through initialization. Or any of a number of transient or permanent network errors could have prevented the URL from loading successfully. The code to load a URL has:

def load_url(self, url):
        try:
            text = urllib2.urlopen(url).read()
            self.url = url
            self.text = text
            self.initialized = True
            return True
        except URLError:
            return False

Note the first real line of the method, text = urllib2.urlopen(url).read(). This will do one of two things: either load the URL’s contents successfully, or throw a URLError. If it throws an error, none of the next three lines is called. This means that an instance of this class is only fully set up with URL etc. stored after a successful read, and if you have an initialized class and try to load another URL and fail, previous data is not clobbered. This is something that can fail, but it is transactional, like a database transaction. Either all of the data is updated or none of it is updated, and in particular the object won’t be left in an inconsistent state.

It uses Perl-style regular expressions, which are powerful and popular but can be a bit cryptic. The one regular expression used is ur'<(\w+)’, with an ‘r’ after the initial ‘u’ to specify a raw string without Python doing things with backslashes that we don’t want when we’re doing regular expressions. What the core of the regular expression says in essence is, “a less than sign, followed by one or more word characters, and save the one or more word characters.” This will find more or less the HTML tags in a webpage.

And the last thing I will say, besides saying that you can use this class by giving,

page = webpage("http://CJSHayward.com/")
print page.list_tags()

is that its present functionality is a foot in the door compared to the analysis that is possible. Right now the webpage class can load a webpage and do one thing with it, list the tags. From that starting point, it is not hard to copy and adapt list_tags() to make another method that will count the tags:

def count_tags(self):
        if self.initialized:
            result = {}
            for tag in re.findall(ur'<(\w+)', self.text, re.DOTALL):
                if tag.lower() in result:
                    result[tag.lower()] += 1
                else:
                    result[tag.lower()] = 1
            return result
        else:
            raise Exception(u'No webpage is loaded.')

There are any number of ways this class could be extended; listing and even counting the tags in a page are something like a “Hello, world!” program: they show the very beginning of the possibilities, not where they end.

Lastly, the portion of the file at the end, beginning with if __name__ == u’__main__’:, is part of a Python pattern of writing for reusability. The basic idea is that you write portions of a program you might want to reuse, such as objects and classes, in the main body of a program, and then material you want to run if you run the script directly, but not if you import it, beneath. If the script above is run directly, it will try to create a webpage and list its tags; but it can also be imported as a module, by something like:

import webpage_inspector

if the file is named webpage_inspector.py. If it is imported as a module, any classes and functions will be available, as webpage_inspector.webpage for instance, but the demo code at the bottom will be skipped.

(If you are interested in parsing webpages, I might suggest that you look at existing tools for Python, such as Beautiful Soup at http://www.crummy.com/software/BeautifulSoup/, that put even more power at your fingertips.)

Finally, this class takes advantage of one of the special methods, in this case __nonzero__(). What that means is that, while works well enough to write:

page = webpage(u'http://CJSHayward.com/')
if page.initialized:
    print page.count_tags()

you could also write:

page = webpage(u’http://CJSHayward.com/‘) if page: print page.count_tags()That is, you can treat a webpage instance like a boolean variable; if you wanted to keep trying to load a page when your network is flaky, you could try:

import time
page = webpage(u'http://CJSHayward.com/')
while not page:
    time.sleep(30)
    page.load_url(u'http://CJSHayward.com/')

Or, using another feature of the method, you could more concisely write:

import time
page = webpage()
while not page.load_url(u'http://CJSHayward.com/'):
    time.sleep(30)

This will keep on trying to load the page, and if necessary keep on trying, waiting 30 seconds between attempts so as not to engage in busy waiting. Busy waiting on a resource (network, filesystem, etc.) is the practice of trying to access a resource without interruption, which can be a way to be a very bad neighbor who drains resources heavily compared to someone who delays. Note that this will keep on trying forever if the error is permanent, such as a nonexistent domain.)

Python partially supports functional programming; here I will attempt, not to explain functional programming to the interested newcomer, but to orient the functional programmer who would like to know what features of functional programming Python supports. I have mentioned one feature of functional programming, (lazy) generators. Python also supports list comprehensions: if you have numbers, a list of integers and/or floating point numbers and want only the positive values, you can do:

positives = [x for x in numbers where x > 0]

lambdas, anonymous functions close to the lambdas of functional programming, are commonly used with filter, map, and reduce:

>>> numbers = [1, 2, 3]
>>> filter(lambda x: x > 1, numbers)
[2, 3]
>>> map(lambda x: x * 2, numbers)
[2, 4, 6]
>>> reduce(lambda x, y: x + y, numbers)
6

Python’s support of functional programming has not always been the best, and functional programmers may be dismayed to learn that Guido was hoping at one point to remove lambda altogether. This may be unfortunate, but to the reader interested in functional programming in Python, I may suggest downloading, reading, and using the Xoltar Toolkit. The Xoltar toolkit provides a module, functional, which is written in pure Python, is largely self-documenting code, and provides tools and/or reference implementations for currying and other favorites.

Now I will be discussing “usability for programmers.” Normally people who discuss usability discuss making a system usable for nontechnical end users, but there is such a thing as usability for programmers; a good chunk of Python’s attraction is that it shows meticulous attention to detail in the usability it provides to programmers.

There are a couple of ways in Python programming that we can provide good usability for other programmers. One is, in choosing names (for variables, methods, objects, classes, and so on), use whole_words_with_underscores, not camelCase. Emacs is perfectly willing to insert spaces in displayed camelCase words, but this is a compensation for camelCase’s weakness, and not everyone uses Emacs: or either of vim or Emacs, for that matter: GUI editors are not going to go away, even if our beloved command line editors might go away. The best thing of all would be to just use spaces in variable names, but so far the language designers have not supported that route. For a consolation prize, underscores are a little bit better than camelCase for native English speakers and significantly better than camelCase for programmers struggling with English’s alphabet. (At a glance, aFewWordsInCamelCase look a bit more like a block of undifferentiated text than a_few_words_separated_by_underscores if you live and breathe English’s alphabet, but if you have worked hard on English but its alphabet is still not your own, aFewWordsInCamelCase looks absolutely like a block of undifferentiated text next to a_few_words_separated_by_underscores. Remember reading “Hi, how are you?” written in Greek letters as “αι &oicron;υ αρ ιυ:” sometimes just using another language’s alphabet is a challenge.

Python has comments, but I would like to make a point. In Python, comments are not there to make code understandable. Python has been called “executable pseudocode,” and is your code’s job to be understandable itself. Comments have a place, but if you need to add comments to make your code understandable, that’s a sign you need to rewrite your code.

A Python comment, like Perl and Tcl (and one option in PHP), begins with a hash mark and continues to the end of the line. Adding a comment to one of the more cryptic lines of the example we have:

for tag in re.findall(ur'<(\w+)', self.text, re.DOTALL): # For each HTML opening tag:

Classes and functions have what are called “docstrings,” basically a short summary that is programmatically accessible, written as a (usually) triple quoted string immediately after the class/function definition:

class empty:
    u'''This class does nothing.'''
    def __init__(self):
        u'''This initializer does nothing.'''
        pass

In terms of indentation, you should always indent by four spaces. Emacs handles this gracefully; vim’s autoindent by default will substitute a tab for eight spaces where it can, leaving code that looks right in your editor but breaks when you run it in Python. If you use vim for Python, you should edit your ~/.vimrc, creating it if need be, and include the following:

set autoindent smartindent tabstop=4 shiftwidth=4 expandtab shiftround

Now we will look at a basic issue of problem solving, the Python way. Usually “encryption” refers to strong encryption, which refers to serious attempts to protect data; when you shop at a responsible merchant and your credit card information is transferred at a URI that begins with “https,” that’s strong encryption in use. There is also something called weak encryption, which includes such things as codes written as puzzles for children to break. If strong encryption is meant to resist prying, weak encryption is at times intended to be pried open. One classic use of weak encryption is rot-13, which moves each letter forward or back by thirteen places and has the convenient feature that running rot-13 again on encrypted text decrypts it. Historically, on UseNet, some offensive material was posted in rot-13 as a matter of common courtesy, so that people were warned and did not need to unintentionally read things that would offend them, and many old newsreaders included a single keystroke command to decrypt rot-13 text. For an example, if you rot-13 “The quick brown dog jumps over the lazy red fox.”, you get, “Gur dhvpx oebja qbt whzcf bire gur ynml erq sbk.”, and if you rot-13 “Gur dhvpx oebja qbt whzcf bire gur ynml erq sbk.”, you get the original “The quick brown dog jumps over the lazy red fox.”, restored perfectly.

Now suppose we want to be able to rot-13 encrypt text from Python. Rot-13 represents an extremely simple algorithm, and for the most part there is a perfectly obvious way to do it:

def rot13(text):
    result = []
    for character in unicode(text): 
        if character == u'a':
            result.append(u'n')
        elif character == u'b':
            result.append(u'o')
        elif character == u'c':
            result.append(u'p')
        elif character == u'd':
            result.append(u'q')
        elif character == u'e':
            result.append(u'r')
        elif character == u'f':
            result.append(u's')
        elif character == u'g':
            result.append(u't')
        elif character == u'h':
            result.append(u'u')
        elif character == u'i':
            result.append(u'v')
        elif character == u'j':
            result.append(u'w')
        elif character == u'k':
            result.append(u'x')
        elif character == u'l':
            result.append(u'y')
        elif character == u'm':
            result.append(u'z')
        elif character == u'n':
            result.append(u'a')
        elif character == u'o':
            result.append(u'b')
        elif character == u'p':
            result.append(u'c')
        elif character == u'q':
            result.append(u'd')
        elif character == u'r':
            result.append(u'e')
        elif character == u's':
            result.append(u'f')
        elif character == u't':
            result.append(u'g')
        elif character == u'u':
            result.append(u'h')
        elif character == u'v':
            result.append(u'i')
        elif character == u'w':
            result.append(u'j')
        elif character == u'x':
            result.append(u'k')
        elif character == u'y':
            result.append(u'l')
        elif character == u'z':
            result.append(u'm')
        elif character == u'A':
            result.append(u'N')
        elif character == u'B':
            result.append(u'O')
        elif character == u'C':
            result.append(u'P')
        elif character == u'D':
            result.append(u'Q')
        elif character == u'E':
            result.append(u'R')
        elif character == u'F':
            result.append(u'S')
        elif character == u'G':
            result.append(u'T')
        elif character == u'H':
            result.append(u'U')
        elif character == u'I':
            result.append(u'V')
        elif character == u'J':
            result.append(u'W')
        elif character == u'K':
            result.append(u'X')
        elif character == u'L':
            result.append(u'Y')
        elif character == u'M':
            result.append(u'Z')
        elif character == u'N':
            result.append(u'A')
        elif character == u'O':
            result.append(u'B')
        elif character == u'P':
            result.append(u'C')
        elif character == u'Q':
            result.append(u'D')
        elif character == u'R':
            result.append(u'E')
        elif character == u'S':
            result.append(u'F')
        elif character == u'T':
            result.append(u'G')
        elif character == u'U':
            result.append(u'H')
        elif character == u'V':
            result.append(u'I')
        elif character == u'W':
            result.append(u'J')
        elif character == u'X':
            result.append(u'K')
        elif character == u'Y':
            result.append(u'L')
        elif character == u'Z':
            result.append(u'M')
    return u''.join(result)

This is a perfectly effectively way of solving the problem, but you may wince at the thought of all that typing, and that is a good sign that this solution is not very Pythonic. Some readers may perhaps be disappointed with me (or, perhaps, not disappointed with me in the slightest) to learn that I cheated: I wrote three lines of code so Python would generate for me the long and tedious part of the routine so I could get out of such a chore, and then pasted the output into the page. We need a better solution in this.

One of the paradoxes in the programming world is that solving a problem in a more general sense may actually be less work. What we basically need is to do some translations of characters, so how can we do that? Remembering that Python’s switch statement is the dictionary, we could try:

def translate(text, translation):
    result = []
    for character in unicode(text):
        if character in translation:
            result.append(translation[character])
        else:
            result.append(character)
    return u''.join(result)

This is a big improvement: cleaner, simpler, much shorter, and much more powerful. So if we are dealing with strings used to store genetic data, we can also get the complement of a string. So to get the complement of u’ATTAGCGACT’, we can do:

original = u'ATTAGCGACT'
complement = translate(original, {u'A': u'T', u'T': u'A', u'C': u'G', u'G': u'C'})

And we’ve improved things, or at least it seems we’ve improved until we get around to the chore of typing out the dictionary contents for every uppercase and lowercase letter. We could write another Python snippet to autogenerate that, as the chore is not only tedious but an invitation to error, but is there a better way?

In fact there is. We can import the string library and take advantage of something that is already there, and here is a solution that is not daunting to type out, only slightly tedious, although here we must use a little ASCII:

import string
translation = string.maketrans(u'ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz', u'NOPQRSTUVWXYZABCDEFGHIJKLMnopqrstuvwxyzabcdefghijklm')
translated = 'The quick brown dog jumps over the lazy red fox.'.translate(translation)

And with that, instead of solving the problem of translation ourselves, we have the problem already solved for us, for the most part. The variable translated is now u’Gur dhvpx oebja qbt whzcf bire gur ynml erq sbk.’

Those versed in Python’s character, though, might possibly not stop here. You can make up your own forms of weak encryption, but rot-13 encoding is not the world’s most obscure thing to do. Is this really the easiest and most Pythonic way to rot-13 a string? Let us fire up our Python interpreter:

>>> print u'The quick brown dog jumps over the lazy red fox.'.encode(u'rot13')
Gur dhvpx oebja qbt whzcf bire gur ynml erq sbk.

The problem is already solved for us.

A famous blog post called Python Is Not Java addresses Java programmers rather bluntly on why doing everything you’d do in Java is not getting the most out of Python:

Essentially, if you’ve been using Java for a while and are new to Python, do not trust your instincts. Your instincts are tuned to Java, not Python. Take a step back, and above all, stop writing so much code.

To do this, become more demanding of Python. Pretend that Python is a magic wand that will miraculously do whatever you want without you needing to lifting a finger. Ask, “how does Python already solve my problem?” and “What Python language feature most resembles my problem?” You will be absolutely astonished at how often it happens that thing you need is already there in some form. In fact, this phenomenon is so common, even among experienced Python programmers, that the Python community has a name for it. We call it “Guido’s time machine”, because sometimes it seems as though that’s the only way he could’ve known what we needed, before we knew it ourselves.

Python’s core library is documented extensively, searchably, and well at http://docs.python.org/library/ (be advised that python.com, besides being easy to type when you really mean python.org, is a famous porn site), and Python’s core library is your best friend. The code samples peppering this chapter are intended to simply illustrate basic features of the language; once you get up to speed, it’s not so much that you’ll have better ways of doing what that code does, as that you’ll have better ways of avoiding doing that, using Python more like a magic wand. I will not be attempting to provide select highlights from the core library because that would easily be a book in its own right. But we are saying that the Python core library is among a good Python programmer’s most heavily used bookmarks.

I advocate, when possible, moving from unadorned, “bare metal” Python to what might be called “Python++.” Let me explain what I mean by this and why it is more Pythonic.

The move from C to C++ is a move made by extending the core language to directly support objects, templates, and other features. There have been some efforts to extend the Python core language: easy_extend is intended to make it Pythonically easy to tinker with and extend the language syntax. However, I have never heard of production use of these extensions Pythonically saving time and effort while making programmers more productive.

What I have heard consistently is that using a good library really does qualify as a move from “unadorned Python” to “Python++”. A StackOverflow user asked, “Have you considered using Django and found good reasons not to?” And people listed legitimate flaws with Django and legitimate reasons they use other alternatives, but one developer got over thirty upvotes with a response of, “Yeah, I am an honest guy, and the client wanted to charge by the hour. There was no way Django was going to allow me to make enough money.” For the web, frameworks like Django, TurboGears, and web2py offer significantly greater power with less work in more truly Pythonic fashion. Python’s standard library does come with its cgi module, and it is possible to write webapps with it, but using the cgi module and the standard library to implement a social networking site with all the common bells and whistles would take months or years. With Python + Django + Pinax the time is more like hours. If you use Python, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you want a social network and you use Django and Pinax, you don’t have to reinvent the internal combustion engine either, or power steering, or antilock brakes, because they are all included in standard packages for a car or truck. If your goal is an online store instead of a social network Pinax will not likely be of much help, but Django + Satchmo will. Both of them provide ready-made solution to routine tasks, whether user avatars with gravatar support, or a shopping cart with that works with any of several payment gateways.

This is true if you are developing for the web; if you are in another domain, similar remarks could be made for NumPy or SciPy.

I do not wish to discourage anyone from using different frameworks than I have mentioned, or suggest that there is something wrong with thinking things out and choosing TurboGears over Django. Web2py in particular cuts out one very daunting hurdle to new programmers: a command line with a steep learning curve. However, I do advocate the use of a serious, noteworthy “Python++” framework and not the standard library alone: the cgi module works entirely as advertised, but the difference between Python + Django + Pinax and just Python with the cgi module is comparable to the difference between Python with the cgi module and programming on bare metal in C.

I may further comment that fundamental usability is the same whether the implementation is Django, TurboGears, web2py, or for that matter Python with the cgi module or C working with bare metal. It would not be a surprise if Ruby on Rails or PHP developers were to look through this and find it speaks to how they can create a better user interface.

Summary

What is it that is attractive about Python?

Perl has been rightly called “Unix’s Swiss Army Chainsaw,” and perhaps nothing else so well concisely describes what it is that Perl has to offer. Java might be compared to the equipment owned by a construction company, equipment that allows large organizations and a well-organized army to erect something monumental. C would be a scientific scalpel, molecular sharp: the most exacting precision you can get unless you go subatomic with assembler or machine language, but treacherously slippery and easy to cut yourself with, something like the scientific-use razor blades which came in a package labelled: “WARNING: Knife is extremely sharp. Keep out of children.”

It is my suggestion that Python is a lightsabre, and wielding it well makes a graceful foundation for usability.

What Evolutionists Have to Say to the Royal, Divine Image: We’re Missing Something!

Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Robb Wolf, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet

I have been rereading and thinking over parts of the two titles above, and I have come to realize that at least some evolutionists have something to give that those of us who believe there is something special about humanity would profit from. I believe more than the “special flower” assessment of humanity that Wolf ridicules; I believe more specifically that humanity is royalty, created in the image of God, and if for the sake of argument at least, the agricultural revolution and what follows are largely a mistake, I can say more than that Homo sapiens (sapiens) is the only species out of an innumerable multitude across incomparable time to be anywhere near enough of a “special flower” to make such a mistake. I believe more specifically that man is created in the divine image and is of eternal significance, and each of us is in the process of becoming either a being so glorious that if you recognized it you would be tempted to worship it, or a horror such as you would not encounter in your worst nightmare—and that each of us in the divine image is in the process of freely choosing which we shall be. No other life form is conferred such a dignity—and I would focus that statement a little more and say no other animal.

‘No other animal:’ the phrase is perhaps jarring to some, but I use it deliberately. I do not, in any sense, say mere animal. But I do quite deliberately say animal. Let us turn to Alisdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, in the opening of the second chapter:

From its earliest sixteenth century uses in English and other European languages ‘animal’ and whatever other expressions correspond to it have been employed both to name a class whose members include spiders, bees, chimpanzees, dolphins and humans—among others, but not plants, inanimate beings, angels, and God, and also to name the class consisting of nonhuman animals. It is this latter use that became dominant in modern Western cultures and with it a habit of mind that, by distracting our attention from how much we share with other animal species…

Since then, evolutionary claims that we are in fact animals is not a resurrection of the older usage; it is a new usage that claims we are nothing more than animals, a claim not implied by Aristotle’s definition of us as ‘rational mortal animals.’ There is both a continuity and a distinction implied between rational humans and non-rational animals, and while many animals have intelligence on some plane (artificial intelligence, after failing to duplicate human intelligence, scaled back and tried to duplicate insect intelligence, and failed at that too), there’s something special to human intelligence. The singularity we are in now may be a predicament, but no other animal could make a predicament of such dimensions.

I will be interested in a direction taken by Mander and the neo-Paleo movement, in a line that MacIntyre does not really explore. Perhaps his thesis about why we, as dependent rational animals, need the virtues, is greater than anything I will explore here. But I have my sights on something lower.

I would like to define two terms for two camps, before showing where one of them shortchanges us.

The first is revolutionary punk eek. Darwin’s theory of evolution is no longer seriously believed by much of anyone in the (generally materialist) scientific community. People who say they believe in evolution, and understand the basic science, normally believe in neo-Darwinian theories of revolution. That is, with Darwin, they no longer believe that species gradually morph into new species. They believe that the fossil record shows a punctuated equilibrium, ‘punk eek‘ to the irreverent, which essentially says that evolution revolutionhas long periods of stable equilibrium, which once in a long while are punctuated by abrupt appearance and disappearance of life forms. (What causes the punctuations is accounted for by the suggestions that life forms evolve very slowly when things are on an even keel, but rapidly mutate substantial beneficial improvements when things turn chaotic. When I protested this, I was told that there were people who evolved HIV/AIDS resistance in a single generation, a premise that I cannot remotely reconcile either with my understanding of probability or of genetics.) As my IMSA biology teacher put it, “Evolution is like baseball. There are long periods of boredom interrupted by intense periods of excitement.”

Now I am deliberately making a somewhat ambiguous term, because I intend to include old earth intelligent design movement’s authors such as Philip Johnson, who wrote Darwin on Trial. Johnson argues that natural forces alone do not suffice to punctuate the equilibrium and push evolution revolution forward; but his interpretation of the fossil record is largely consistent with that of someone who believes in neo-Darwinian revolutionary punk eek. And so I lump Richard Dawkins and Philip Johnson together in the same cluster, a move that would probably leave them both aghast.

The distinction between them is between revolutionary punk eek adherents, who believe the universe is billions of years old, and young earth creationists, including perhaps some Jews, most Church Fathers, Evangelical conservatives who created Creation Science as an enterprise of proving a young earth scientifically, and Fr. Seraphim (Rose), who saw to it that Orthodox would not stop with quoting the Fathers but additionally import Creation Science into Orthodoxy.

Now let me give some dates, in deliberately vague terms. The age of the agricultural revolution and of civilization weighs in at several thousand years. The age of the world according to young earth creationists is also several thousand years. According to revolutionary punk eek, the age of the world is several billion years, but that’s a little besides the point. The salient point is where you draw the line, a question which I will not try to settle, beyond saying that the oldest boundary I’ve seen chosen is some millions of years, and the newest boundary I’ve heard is hundreds of thousands of years. What this means in practice is that on young earth assumptions, agriculture is about as old as the universe, while on revolutionary punk eek assumptions, the beginning of the agricultural revolution occurred at absolute most in the past five percent of the time humans have been around, not leaving enough time for our nature to really change in any way that makes sense for revolutionary punk eek. Or to put it more sharply, young earth creationism implies that agrarian life has been around about as long as the first humans, and revolutionary punk eek implies that the agricultural revolution represents a big-picture eyeblink, a mere blip on the radar for people built to live optimally under normal hunter-gatherer conditions. To the young-earther, there might be prehistory but there can’t be very much of it; the normal state of the human being is at earliest agrarian, and there is not much argument that the ways of agrarian society are normative. To the revolutionary punk eek adherent, there is quite a lot of prehistory that optimized us for hunter-gatherer living, and agrarian society and written history with it are just a blip and away from the baseline.

The other term besides revolutionary punk eek is pseudomorphosis, a term which I adapt from an Orthodox usage to mean, etymologically, conforming to a false shape, a square peg in a round hole. The revolunary punk implication drawn by some is that we were optimized for hunter-gatherer living, and the artificial state known in civilisation and increasingly accelerating away from these origins is a false existence in something like the Call of C’thulu role playing game played by my friends in high school, where rifts occur in the fabric of reality and “mosters” come through them, starting with the relatively tame vampires and zombies and moving on to stranger monsters such as a color that drives people mad. A motley crew of heroes must seal these rifts, or else there will come one of the “Ancient Ones”, a demon god intent on destroying the earth. (It is an occult picture, but not entirely different from the state of our world.)

I don’t want to give full context, but I was in a discussion with my second thesis advisor after my studies, and he asked whether I would make ‘allowances for greater ignorance in the past.’ Now he was a member of a college with one of the world’s best libraries for the study of Graeco-Roman context to the New Testament, and he was expert in rabbinic Jewish cultural context to the New Testament. Hello? Has he heard of the Babylonian Talmud? A knowledge of the Talmud is easily on par with a good liberal arts education, and it really puts the reader through its paces. And its point is not just a training ground with mental gymnastics that stretch the mind, but something far greater. My reply to him was, ‘I do not make allowances for greater ignorance in the past. Allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable.’ And if it is true that we live in escalating pseudomorphosis, perhaps we should wonder if we should make allowances for greater ignorance in the present. I know much more about scientific botany than any ancient hunter-gatherer ever knew, but I could not live off the land for a month much of anywhere in the wild. Should I really be looking down on hunter-gatherers because unlike them I know something of the anatomical structure of cells and how DNA basically works? If a hunter-gatherer were to an answer, an appropriate, if not entirely polite, answer would be, “Here is a knife, a gun, and a soldier’s pack with bedroll and such. Live off the land for a month anywhere in the world, and then we’ll talk.”

To take an aside and try to give something of a concrete feel to what hunter-gatherers know that we do not, what might constitute ‘greater ignorance in the present’, I would like to give a long quote from Mander (I am tempted to make it longer), and point out that Mander is following a specific purpose and only recording one dimension. He does not treat for instance, interpersonal relations. Not necessarily that this is a problem; it may be expedient for the purpose of a written work to outline what a friend does for work without making much of any serious attempt to cover who that friend is as a person and what people and things serve as connections. Mander describes what contemporary hunter-gatherers have in terms of perception that television viewers lack:

In Wizard of the Upper Amazon F. Bruce Lamb records the apparently true account of Manuel Cordova de Rios, a Peruvian rubber cutter, kidnapped by the Amaheuca Indians for invading their territory and forced to remain with them for many years. Rios describes the way the Indians learned things about the jungle, which was both the object of constant study and the teacher. They observed it first as individuals, experiencing each detail. Then they worked out larger patterns together as a group, much like individual cells informing the larger body, which also informs the cells.

In the evenings, the whole tribe would gather and repeat each detail of the day just passed. They would describe every sound, the creature that made it and its apparent state of mind. The conditions of growth of all the plants for miles around were discussed. This band of howler monkeys, which was over here three days ago, is now over there. Certain fruit trees which were in the bud stage three weeks ago are now bearing ripe fruit. A jaguar was seen by the river, and now it is on the hillside. It is in a strangely anguished mood. The grasses in the valley are peculiarly dry. There is a group of birds that have not moved for several days. The wind has altered in direction and smells of something unknown. (Actually, such a fact as a wind change might not be reported at all. Everyone would already know it. A change of wind or scent would arrive in everyone’s awareness as a bucket of cold water in the head might arrive in ours.)

Rios tells many of the stories concerned with the “personalities” of individual animals and plants, what kind of “vibrations” they give off. Dreams acted as an additional information systems from beyond the level of conscious notation, drawing up patterns and meanings from deeper levels. Predictions would be based on them.

Drugs were used not so much for changing moods, as we use them today, but for the purpose of further spacing out perception. Plants and animals could then be seen more clearly, as if in slow motion (time lapse), adding to the powers of observation, yielding up especially subtle information to how plants worked, and which creatures would be more likely to relate to which plants. An animal interested in concealment, for example, might eat a plant which tended to conceal itself.

Reading these accounts made it clear to me that all life in the jungle is constantly of all other life in exquisite detail. Through this, the Indians gained information about the way natural systems interact. The observation was itself knowledge. Depending on the interpretation, the knowledge might or might not become reliable and useful.

Each detail of each event had special power and meaning. The understanding was so complete that it was only the rare event that could not be explained—a twig cracked in a way that did not fit the previous history of cracked twigs—that was cause for concern and immediate arming.

Examples could easily be multiplied. There are many passages like that in the book, and many to be written for life. We seem to have a filter where ‘knowledge’ implicitly means ‘knowledge of the sort that we possess’, and then by that filter judge other cultures, especially cultures of the past, as knowing less than us. The anthropological term is ethnocentrism. I believe a little humility is in order for us.

Humans have eyes, skin, a digestive tract, and other features that are basic animal features. When studying wild animals, for instance, we expect them to function best under certain conditions. Now the locality of an organism can vary considerably: in North America, there are certain relatively generic species of trees that can be found over a broad swath of land, while in Australia, trees tend to be more specialized and occupy a very specific niche. But in some ways human adaptability is overemphasized. The human body can adapt to regularly breathing in concentrated smoke, in one sense: keeping on smoking is so easy it is hard to quit. But that does not mean that human lungs adapt to breathing in concentrated smoke on a regular basis. The ease with which a person or society can adjust to cigarettes exceeds any adaptation revolutionary punk eek would allow for lungs. Perhaps hunter-gatherers have ingested some smoke from fires, and possibly we have enough tolerance that we do not puff up with an allergic reaction at the first smoke. Nonetheless, in no quarter has the human body adapted to be able to smoke without damage to lungs and health.

For most of the human race to embrace the agricultural revolution, and the revolutions that follow, might be like smoking. We can adapt in the sense of making the change and getting used to it. But that does not include, metaphorically speaking, our lungs. We still have hunter-gatherer lungs, as it were, perhaps lungs that work better if we follow neo-Paleo diet and exercise, and we have adopted changes we have not adapted to.

What punk eek revolutionists have to give us

What is perhaps the most valuable thing revolutionary punk has to offer us is a question: “What conditions are we as revolutionary organisms best adapted to?” And The Paleo Solution offers a neo-Paleo prescription for diet and also exercise. This may not exactly be like what any tribe of hunter-gatherers ate, but it is lightyears closer than fast food, and is also vastly closer than industrial or even agrarian diets. And the gym-owning author’s exercise prescription is vastly more appropriate than a sedentary lifestyle without exercise, and is probably much better than cardiovascular exercise alone. And Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television argues, among other things, that humans do substantially better with natural organic sunlight than any of the artificial concocted lights we think are safer. They don’t suggest social structure; the question of whether they held what would today be considered traditional gender roles is not raised, which may itself be an answer. (For the text Mander cites, the answer is ‘Yes’, although Mander, possibly due to other reasons such as brevity and focus, does not make this point at all clear.) And they don’t complete the picture, and they don’t even get to MacIntyre’s point that our condition as dependent and ultimately vulnerable rational animals means that we need the virtues, but they do very well with some of the lower notes.

The argument advanced by vegetarians that we don’t have a carnivore digestive tract is something of a breath of fresh air. It argues that meat calls for a carnivore’s short digestive tract and vegetables call for an herbivore’s long digestive tract, and our digestive tract is a long one. Now there is to my mind, a curious omission; for both hunter-gatherer and modern times, most people have eaten an omnivore’s diet, and this fallacy of the excluded middle never brings up how long or short an omnivore’s digestive tract is: apparently, we must either biologically be carnivores or herbivores, even though the people vegetarians are arguing with never seem to believe we should be straight carnivores who eat meat and only meat; even people who call themselves ‘carnivores’ in fact tend to eat a lot of food that is not meat, even if meat might be their favorite. But the question, if arguably duplicitous, is a helpful kind of question to ask. It asks, “What are we adapted to?” and the answer is, “Living like hunter-gatherers.” That’s true for the 2,000,000 or however many years the genus Homo has been around, and it’s still true for the 200,000 years Homo sapiens sapiens has been around. Or if you want to subtract the 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution began and we began to experiment with smoking, 190,000 years before we created the singularity that opens rifts in the fabric of reality and lets monsters in, including (as is argued in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, in the chapter on ‘Artificial Light’), the ‘color that makes people mad’ from the phosphor glow of a television screen in a darkened room.

Some arguments vaguely like this have looked at written history, instead of archaeology. Sally Fallon, in the Weston A. Price spirit, wrote the half-argument, half-cookbook volume of Nourishing Traditions, which argues that we with our industrial diet would do well to heed the dietary solutions found in agrarian society, and prescribes a diet that is MUCH better than the industrial diet. But she essentially only looks at recorded history, which is millennia newer than agricultural beginnings. But the pseudomorphosis was already well underway by the times recorded in Nourishing Traditions, and not just diet. Everything had begun a profound shift, even if with later revolutions like electricity and computing the earlier agrarian patterns looked like the original pattern of human life. And indeed if you are a young earther, the first chapters of Genesis have agriculture in the picture with some of the first human beings. And so Bible-focused young earth approaches will not arrive at the correct answer to, “What conditions is man as an animal [still] best adapted to?” In all probability they will not arrive at the question.

Revolutionary punk eek will. It asks the question, perhaps with a Western focus, and its answers are worth considering. Not on the level of virtue and ascesis, perhaps, but the ‘lower’ questions are more pressing now. The default diet and the default level of exercise are part of a profoundly greater pseudomorphosis than when the agricultural revolution took root. And getting a more optimal diet and exercise now may be a more pressing concern, and a diet of more sunlight and better light, if you will, and other things. There is a certain sense in which sobriety is not an option for us; we have a gristly choice between being 5, 10, or 20 drinks drunk, and people who take into account this gift from revolutionary punk eek will be less drunk, not sober. But it is worth being less drunk.

So a word of thanks especially to secular adherents of revolutionary punk eek who do not see us who have perhaps made the mistake of civilization as any particular kind of “special flower,” and ask, “What is Homo sapiens sapiens biologically adapted to as an animal and an organism?” They might not hit some of the high notes, but I am very grateful for the neo-Paleo diet. And I am grateful to Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television for exposing me to the unnatural character of artificial light and the benefits of real, organic sunlight. I’ve been spending more time outside, and I can feel a difference: I feel better. Thanks to revolutionary punk eek!

Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

 

Socrates: And now, let me give an illustration to show how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! a human being in a darkened den, who has a slack jaw towards only source of light in the den; this is where he has gravitated since his childhood, and though his legs and neck are not chained or restrained any way, yet he scarcely turns round his head. In front of him are images from faroff, projected onto a flickering screen. And others whom he cannot see, from behind their walls, control the images like marionette players manipulating puppets. And there are many people in such dens, some isolated one way, some another.

Glaucon: I see.

Socrates: And do you see, I said, the flickering screen showing men, and all sorts of vessels, and statues and collectible animals made of wood and stone and various materials, and all sorts of commercial products which appear on the screen? Some of them are talking, and there is rarely silence.

Glaucon: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Socrates: Much like us. And they see only their own images, or the images of one another, as they appear on the screen opposite them?

Glaucon: True, he said; how could they see anything but the images if they never chose to look anywhere else?

Socrates: And they would know nothing about a product they buy, except for what brand it is?

Glaucon: Yes.

Socrates: And if they were able to converse with one another, wouldn’t they think that they were discussing what mattered?

Glaucon: Very true.

Socrates: And suppose further that the screen had sounds which came from its side, wouldn’t they imagine that they were simply hearing what people said?

Glaucon: No question.

Socrates: To them, the truth would be literally nothing but those shadowy things we call the images.

Glaucon: That is certain.

Socrates: And now look again, and see what naturally happens next: the prisoners are released and are shown the truth. At first, when any of them is liberated and required to suddenly stand up and turn his neck around, and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the images; and then imagine someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is asking him to things, not as they are captured on the screen, but in living color -will he not be perplexed? Won’t he imagine that the version which he used to see on the screen are better and more real than the objects which are shown to him in real life?

Glaucon: Far better.

Socrates: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

Glaucon: True, he now will.

Socrates: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and hindered in his self-seeking until he’s forced to think about someone besides himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? He will find that he cannot simply live life as he sees fit, and he will not have even the illusion of finding comfort by living for himself.

Glaucon: Not all in a moment, he said.

Socrates: He will require time and practice to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the billboards best, next the product lines he has seen advertised, and then things which are not commodities; then he will talk with adults and children, and will he know greater joy in having services done to him, or will he prefer to do something for someone else?

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: Last of he will be able to search for the One who is greatest, reflected in each person on earth, but he will seek him for himself, and not in another; and he will live to contemplate him.

Glaucon: Certainly.

Socrates: He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and is absolutely the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Glaucon: Clearly, he said, his mind would be on God and his reasoning towards those things that come from him.

Socrates: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Glaucon: Certainly, he would.

Socrates: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe what was happening in the world of brands and what new features were marketed, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master” than to reign as king of this Hell, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Glaucon: Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

Socrates: Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness, and seem simply not to get it?

Glaucon: To be sure.

Socrates: And in conversations, and he had to compete in one-upsmanship of knowing the coolest brands with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went with his eyes and down he came without them; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would give him an extremely heavy cross to bear.

Glaucon: No question. Then is the saying, “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king,” in fact false?

Socrates: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is crucified. Dear Glaucon, you may now add this entire allegory to the discussion around a matter; the den arranged around a flickering screen is deeply connected to the world of living to serve your pleasures, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the spiritual transformation which alike may happen in the monk keeping vigil or the mother caring for children, the ascent of the soul into the world of spiritual realities according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the Source of goodness appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.

Glaucon: I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.

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A Strange Picture

Cover for Yonder

As I walked through the gallery, I immediately stopped when I saw one painting. As I stopped and looked at it, I became more and more deeply puzzled. I’m not sure how to describe the picture.

It was a picture of a city, viewed from a high vantage point. It was a very beautiful city, with houses and towers and streets and parks. As I stood there, I thought for a moment that I heard the sound of children playing—and I looked, but I was the only one present.

This made all the more puzzling the fact that it was a disturbing picture—chilling even. It was not disturbing in the sense that a picture of the Crucifixion is disturbing, where the very beauty is what makes it disturbing. I tried to see what part might be causing it, and met frustration. It seemed that the beauty was itself what was wrong—but that couldn’t be right, because when I looked more closely I saw that the city was even more beautiful than I had imagined. The best way I could explain it to myself was that the ugliness of the picture could not exist except for an inestimable beauty. It was like an unflattering picture of an attractive friend—you can see your friend’s good looks, but the picture shows your friend in an ugly way. You have to fight the picture to really see your friend’s beauty—and I realized that I was fighting the picture to see the city’s real beauty. It was a shallow picture of something profound, and it was perverse. An artist who paints a picture helps you to see through his eyes—most help you to see a beauty that you could not see if you were standing in the same spot and looking. This was like looking at a mountaintop through a pair of eyes that were blind, with a blindness far more terrible, far more crippling, than any blindness that is merely physical. I stepped back in nausea.

I leaned against a pillar for support, and my eyes fell to the bottom of the frame. I glanced on the picture’s title: Porn.

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The Luddite’s Guide to Technology

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

Since the Bridegroom was taken from the disciples, it has been a part of the Orthodox Church’s practice to fast. What is expected in the ideal has undergone changes, and one’s own practice is done in submission to one’s priest. The priest may work on how to best relax rules in many cases so that your fasting is a load you can shoulder. There is something of a saying, “As always, ask your priest,” and that goes for fasting from technology too. Meaning, specifically, that if you read this article and want to start fasting from technologies, and your priest says that it won’t be helpful, leave this article alone and follow your priest’s guidance.

From ancient times there has been a sense that we need to transcend ourselves. When we fast, we choose to set limits and master our belly, at least partly. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food—maybe, but God will destroy them both.” So the Apostle answered the hedonists of his day. The teaching of fasting is that you are more than the sum of your appetites, and we can grow by giving something up in days and seasons. And really fasting from foods is not saying, “I choose to be greater than this particular luxury,” but “I choose to be greater than this necessity.” Over ninety-nine percent of all humans who have ever lived never saw a piece of modern technology: Christ and his disciples reached far and wide without the benefit of even the most obsolete of eletronic communication technologies. And monks have often turned back on what luxuries were available to them: hence in works like the Philokalia or the Ladder extol the virtue of sleeping on the floor. If we fast from technologies, we do not abstain from basic nourishment, but what Emperors and kings never heard of. At one monastery where monks lived in cells without running water or electricity, a monk commented that peasants and for that matter kings lived their whole lives without tasting these, or finding them a necessity. (Even Solomon in all his splendor did not have a Facebook page.)

In Orthodoxy, if a person is not able to handle the quasi-vegan diet in fasting periods, a priest may relax the fast, not giving carte blanche to eat anything the parishioner wants, but suggesting that the parishioner relax the fast to some degree, eating some fish or an egg. This basic principle of fasting is applicable to technology: rather than immediately go cold turkey on certain technologies, use “some fish or an egg” in terms of older technologies. Instead of texting for a conversation, drive over to a nearby friend.

(Have you ever noticed that during Lent many Orthodox Christians cut down or eliminate their use of Facebook?)

As mentioned in Technonomicon, what we call space-conquering technologies might slightly more appropriately be called body-conquering technologies, because they neutralize some of the limitations of our embodied state. The old wave of space-conquering technologies moves people faster or father than they could move themselves, and older science fiction and space opera often portrays bigger and better versions of this kind of space conquering technologies: personal jet packs, cars that levitate (think Luke Skywalker’s land speeder), or airplanes that function as spacecraft (his X-Wing). What is interesting to me here is that they serve as bigger and better versions of the older paradigm of space-conquering technologies, even if Luke remains in radio contact with the Rebel base. That is the older paradigm. The newer paradigm is technologies that make one’s physical location irrelevant, or almost irrelevant: cell phones, texting, Facebook, and remote work, are all not bigger and better ways to move your body, but bigger and better ways to do things in a mind-based context where the location of your body may be collected as in Google Plus, but your actual, physical location is really neither here nor there.

My own technology choices

I purchased a MacBook Pro laptop, and its specs are really impressive. Eight cores, eight gigabytes of RAM, a 1920×1200 17″ display, and gracefully runs Ubuntu Linux, Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows 8 as guest OS’es. And it is really obsolete in one respect: it doesn’t have the hot new Retina display that has been migrated to newer MacBook Pros. I want to keep it for a long time; but my point in mentioning it here is that I did not purchase it as the hot, coolest new thing, but as a last hurrah of an old guard. The top two applications I use are Google Chrome and the Mac’s Unix terminal, and the old-fashioned laptop lets me take advantage of the full power of the Unix command line, and lets me exercise root privilege without voiding the warranty. For a Unix wizard, that’s a lot of power. And the one major thing which I did not “upgrade” was replacing the old-fashioned spindle drives with newer, faster solid state drives. The reason? Old-fashioned spindle drives can potentially work indefinitely, while spindle drives wear out after a certain number of times saving data: saving data slowly uses the drive up. And I realized this might be my only opportunity in a while to purchase a tool I want to use for a long while.

Laptops might continue to be around for a while, and desktops for that matter, but their place is a bit like landline phones. If you have a desk job, you will probably have a desktop computer and a landline, but the wave of the future is smartphones and tablets; the hot, coolest new thing is not a bulky, heavy MacBook, but whatever the current generation of iPad or Android-based tablet is. One youngster said, “Email is for old people,” and perhaps the same is to be said of laptops.

I also have an iPhone, which I upgraded from one of the original iPhones to an iPhone 4, not because I needed to have the latest new thing, but because my iPhone was necessarily on an AT&T contract, and however much they may advertise that the EDGE network my iPhone was on was “twice the speed of dialup,” I found when jobhunting that a simple, short “thank you” letter after an interview took amazingly many minutes for my phone to send, at well below the speed of obsolete dial-up speeds I had growing up: AT&T throttled the bandwidth to an incredibly slow rate and I got a newer iPhone with Verizon which I want to hold on to, even though there is a newer and hotter model available. But I am making conscious adult decisions about using the iPhone: I have sent perhaps a dozen texts, and have not used the iPod functionality. I use it, but I draw lines. My point is not exactly that you should adopt the exact same conscious adult decisions as I do about how to use a smartphone, but that you make a conscious adult decision in the first place.

And lastly, I have another piece of older technology: a SwissChamp XLT, the smallest Swiss Army Knife that includes all the functionality of a SwissChamp while also having the functionality of a Cybertool. It has, in order, a large blade, small blade, metal saw, nail file, metal file, custom metal-cutting blade, wood saw, fish scaler, ruler in centimeters and inches, hook remover, scissors, hooked blade, straight blade with concave curved mini-blade, pharmacist’s spatula, cybertool (Phillips screwdrivers in three sizes, Torx screwdrivers in three sizes, hexagonal bit, and a slotted screwdriver), pliers, magnifying glass, larger Phillips screwdriver, large slotted screwdriver, can opener, wire stripper, small slotted screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, jeweller’s screwdriver, pin, wood chisel, hook, smaller slotted screwdriver, and reamer. It’s somewhat smaller than two iPhones stacked on top of each other, and while it’s wider than I like, it is also something of a last hurrah. It is a useful piece of older technology.

I mention these technologies not to sanction what may or may not be owned—I tried to get as good a computer as I could partly because I am an IT professional, and I am quite grateful that my employer let me use it for the present contract. I also drive a white 2001 Saturn, whose front now looks a bit ugly after cosmetic damage. I could get it fixed fairly easily, but it hasn’t yet been a priority. (But this car has also transported the Kursk Root icon.) But with this as with other technologies, I haven’t laid the reins on the horse’s neck. I only use a well-chosen fragment of my iPhone’s capabilities, and I try not to use it too much: I like to be able to use the web without speed being much of an issue, but I’m not on the web all the time. And I have never thought “My wheels are my freedom;” I try to drive insofar as it advances some particular goal.

And there are some things when I’m not aware of the brands too much. I don’t really know what brands my clothing are, with one exception, Hanes, which I am aware of predominantly because the brand name is sewed in large, hard-to-miss letters at the top.

And I observe that technologies are becoming increasingly “capture-proof”. Put simply, all technologies can be taken away from us physically, but technologies are increasingly becoming something that FEMA can shut off from far away in a heartbeat. All network functionality on smartphones and tablets are at the mercy of network providers and whoever has control over them; more broadly, “The network is the computer,” as Sun announced slightly prematurely in its introduction of Java; my own Unix-centric use of my Mac on train rides, without having or wanting it to have internet access during the train ride, may not be much more than a historical curiosity.

But the principle of fasting from technology is fine, and if we can abstain from foods on certain days, we can also abstain from or limit technologies on certain days. Furthermore, there is real merit in knowing how to use older technologies. GPS devices can fail to pick up a signal. A trucker’s atlas works fine even if there’s no GPS signal available.

The point of this soliloquoy

The reason I am writing this up is that I am not aware of too many works on how to use technology ascetically. St. Paul wrote, There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.. This statement of necessities does not include shelter, let alone “a rising standard of living” (meaning more things that one uses). Perhaps it is OK to have a car; it is what is called “socially mandated”, meaning that there are many who one cannot buy groceries or get to their jobs without a car. Perhaps a best rule of thumb here is, to repeat another author, “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” It is a measure by which I have real failings. And don’t ask, “Can we afford what we need?”, but “Do we need what we can afford?” If we only purchase things that have real ascetical justification, there’s something better than investing for the left-over money: we can give to the poor as an offering to Christ. Christ will receive our offering as a loan.

Some years ago I wanted to write The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, and stopped because I realized I wasn’t writing anything good or worthy of the title. But the attitude of the Church Fathers given the technology of the day: monasticism renounces all property, and the faithful are called to renounce property in their hearts even if they have possessions. Monastic literature warns the monk of seeking out old company, where “old company” does not mean enticement to sexual sin exactly, but one’s very own kin. The solitary and coenobetic alike cut ties to an outside world, even ties one would think were sacrosanct (and the Bible has much to say about caring for one’s elders). If a monk’s desire to see his father or brother is considered a temptation to sin that will dissipate monastic energy, what do we have to make of social media? The friendships that are formed are of a different character from face-to-face relationships. If monks are forbidden to return to their own kin as shining example, in what light do we see texting, email, IM’s, and discussion forums? If monks are forbidden to look at women’s faces for fear of sexual temptation, what do we make of an internet where the greatest assault on manhood, porn, comes out to seek you even if you avoid it? It’s a bit like a store that sells food, household supplies, and cocaine: and did I mention that the people driving you to sample a little bit of cocaine are much pushier than those offering a biscuit and dip sample?

The modern Athonite tradition at least has Luddite leanings; Athos warns against national identification numbers and possibly computers, and one saint wrote apocalyptically about people eating eight times as much as people used to eat (has anyone read “The Supersizing of America”?) and of “wisdom” being found that would allow people to swim like fish deep into the sea (we have two technologies that can do that: SCUBA gear and submarines), and let one person speak and be heard on the other side of the world (how many technologies do we have to do that? Quite a lot).

All of this is to say that Orthodoxy has room to handle technologies carefully, and I would suggest that not all technologies are created equal.

The Luddite’s Guide to Technology

For the different technologies presented my goal is not exactly to point to a course of action as to suggest a conscious adult decision to make, perhaps after consulting with one’s priest or spiritual father. And as is usual in Orthodoxy, the temptation at least for converts is to try to do way too much, too fast, at first, and then backslide when that doesn’t work.

It is better to keep on stretching yourself a little.

Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, using technology in an ascetical way will be countercultural and constitute outlier usage.

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Advertising

Advertising is kin to manipulation, propaganda, and pornography.

Advertising answers the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” by decisively saying, “Man was made for economic wealth.” It leads people to buy things that are not in their best interest. If you see someone using a technology as part of a form of life that is unhelpful, the kind of thing that makes you glad to be a Luddite, you have advertising to thank for that.

Advertising stirs discontent, which is already a problem, and leads people to ever higher desires, much like the trap of pornography. The sin is covetousness and lust, but the core structure is the same. Advertising and pornography are closely related kin.

Advertising doesn’t really sell product functionality; it sells a mystique. And we may have legitimate reason to buy the product, but not the mystique. And maybe back off on a useful purchase until we are really buying the product and not the mystique.

Alcohol

Alcohol is not exactly a new technology, although people have found ways of making stronger and stronger drinks as time goes on. However, there is a lesson to learn with alcohol that applies to technology.

One article read outlined a few positions on Christian use of alcohol, ending with a position that said, in essence, “Using alcohol appropriately is a spiritual challenge and there is more productive spiritual work in drinking responsibly than just not drinking.” I don’t think the authors would have imposed this position on people who know they have particular dangers in using alcohol, but they took a sympathetic look at positions of Christians who don’t drink, and then said “The best course of all is not from trying to cut off the danger by not drinking, but rising to the spiritual lesson.”

Yet an assumption behind all of the positions presented is that alcohol is something where you cannot safely lay the reins on the horse’s neck. You need to be in command, or to put it differently ceaselessly domineer alcohol if you use it. This domineering is easy for some people and harder for others, and some people may be wisest to avoid the challenge.

Something of the same need exists in our use of technology. We may use certain technologies or may not, but it is still a disaster to let the technology go wherever it wills. Sometimes and with some technologies, we may abstain. Other technologies we may domineer, even if we may find if we are faithful that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light:” establishing dominion and holding the reins may be easier when it becomes a habit. But the question with a technology we use is not, “May we use it as much as we want, or not at all?”, any more than the question about wine would be, “May we use it as much as we want, or not at all?” Proper use is disciplined. Proper use is domineering. And we do not always have it spelled out what is like having one or two drinks a day, and what is like having five or ten. Nor do we have other rules of thumb spelled out, like, “Think carefully about drinking when you have a bad mood, and don’t drink in order to fix a bad mood.”

The descriptions of various “technologies and other things” are meant to provide some sense of what the contours of technologies are, and what is like drinking one or two drinks, and what is like drinking five or ten drinks a day.

Anti-aging medicine
The Christian teaching is that life begins at conception and ends at natural death, and no that life begins at 18 and ends at 30.

The saddest moment in The Chronicles of Narnia comes when we hear that Her Majesty Queen Susan the Gentle is “no longer a friend of Narnia;” she is rushing as quickly as possible to the silliest age of her life, and will spend the rest of her life trying to remain at that age, which besides being absolutely impossible, is absolutely undesirable.

Quite a lot of us are afflicted by the Queen Susan syndrome, but there is a shift in anti-aging medicine and hormone replacement therapy. Part of the shift in assistive technologies discussed below is that assistive technologies are not just intended to do what a non-disabled person can do, so for instance a reader can read a page of a book, giving visually impaired people equivalent access to a what a sighted person could have, to pushing as far what they think is an improvement, so that scanning a barcode may not just pull up identification of the product bearing the barcode, but have augmented reality features of pulling a webpage that says much more than what a sighted person could see on the tab. One of the big tools of anti-aging medicine is hormone replacement therapy, with ads showing a grey-haired man doing pushups with a caption of, “My only regret about hormone replacement therapy is that I didn’t start it sooner,” where the goal is not to restore functionality but improve it as much as possible. And the definition of improvement may be infantile; here it appears to mean that a man who might be a member of the AARP has the same hormone levels as he did when he was 17.

There was one professor I had who was covering French philosophy, discussed Utopian dreams like turning the seas to lemonade, and called these ideas “a Utopia of spoiled children.” Anti-aging medicine is not about having people better fulfill the God-ordained role of an elder, but be a virtual youth. Now I have used nutriceuticals to bring more energy and be able to create things where before I was not, and perhaps that is like anti-aging medicine that has me holding on to youthful creativity when God summons me to goFurther up and further in! But everything I know about anti-aging is that it is not about helping people function gracefully in the role of an elder, but about making any things about aging optional.

In my self-absorbed Seven-Sided Gem, I talked about one cover to the AARP’s magazine, then called My Generation, which I originally mistook for something GenX. In the AARP’s official magazine as I have seen it, the marketing proposition is the good news, not that it is not that bad to be old, but it is not that old to be old. The women portrayed look maybe GenX in age, and on the cover I pulled out, the person portrayed, in haircut, clothing, and posture, looked like a teenager. “Fifty and better people” may see political and other advice telling them what they can do to fight high prescription prices, but nothing I have seen gives the impression that they can give to their community, as elders, out of a life’s wealth of experience.

Not that there are not proper elders out there. I visited a family as they celebrated their son’s graduation, and had long conversations with my friend’s mother, and with an elderly gentleman (I’ve forgotten how he was related). She wanted to hear all about what I had to say about subjects that were of mutual interest, and he talked about the wealth of stories he had as a sailor and veterinarian. In both cases I had the subtle sense of a younger person being handled masterfully by an elder, and the conversation was unequal—unequal but entirely fitting, and part of the “entirely fitting” was that neither of them was trying to say, “We are equal—I might as well be as young as you.”

Anti-aging medicine is not about aging well, but trying to be a virtual young person when one should be doing the serious, weight, and profoundly important function as elders.

Assistive technologies

This, at least, will seem politically incorrect: unless they have an inordinate monetary or moral cost, assistive technologies allow disabled people to function at a much higher level than otherwise. And I am not going to exactly say that people with disabilities who have access to assistive technologies should turn them down, but I am going to say that there is something I am wary of in the case of assistive technologies.

There is the same question as with other technologies: “Is this really necessary? Does this help?” A blind friend said,

I was recently interviewed for a student’s project about assistive technology and shopping, and I told her that I wouldn’t use it in many circumstances. First of all, I think some of what is available has more ‘new toy’ appeal and is linked to advertising. Secondly, I think some things, though they may be convenient, are dehumanising. Why use a barcode scanner thingummy to tell what’s in a tin when I can ask someone and relate to someone?

Now to be clear, this friend does use assistive technologies and is at a high level of functioning: “to whom much is given, much is required.” I get the impression that the assistive technologies she has concerns about, bleed into augmented reality. And though she is absolutely willing to use assistive technologies, particularly when they help her serve others, she is more than willing to ask as I am asking of many technologies, “What’s the use? Does this help? Really help?

But there is another, more disturbing question about assistive technologies. The question is not whether individual assistive technologies are helpful when used in individual ways, but whether a society that is always inventing higher standards for accessibility and assistive technology has its deepest priorities straight. And since I cannot answer that out of what my friend has said, let me explain and talk about the Saint and the Activist and then talk about how similar things have played out in my own life.

I write this without regrets about my own efforts and money spent in creating assistive technologies, and with the knowledge that in societies without assistive technologies many disabled people have no secular success. There are notable examples of disabled people functioning at a high level of secular success, such as the noted French Cabalist Isaac the Blind, but the much more common case was for blind people to be beggars. The blind people met by Christ in the Gospel were without exception beggars. And there are blind beggars in first world countries today.

So what objection would I have to assistive technologies which, if they may not be able to create sight, none the less make the hurdles much smaller and less significant. So, perhaps, medicine cannot allow some patients to read a paper book. Assistive technologies make a way for them to access the book about as well as if they could see the book with their eyes. What is there to object in making disabled people more able to function in society as equal contributors?

The answer boils down to the distinction between the Saint and the Activist as I have discussed them in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism and The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. The society that is patterned after the Saint is ordered towards such things as faith and contemplation. The society patterned after the Activist is the one that seeks to ensure the maximum secular success of its members. And if the Activist says, “Isn’t it wonderful how much progress we have made? Many disabled people are functioning at a high level!”, the Saint says, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your Activism. We have bigger fish to fry.” And they do.

Now to be clear, I am not saying that you should not use assistive technologies to help give back to society. Nor do I regret any of the time I’ve spent on assistive technologies. The first idea I wanted to patent was an assistive technology. But we have bigger fish to fry.

There is a way in which I am a little like the blind beggar in many societies that took the Saint for their pattern. It’s on a much lesser scale, but I tried my hardest to earn a Ph.D. in theology. At Cambridge University in England the faculty made me switch thesis topic completely, from a topic I had set at the beginning of the year, when two thirds of the year had passed and I had spent most of my time on my thesis. My grades were two points out of a hundred less than the cutoff for Ph.D. continuation, and Cambridge very clearly refused for me to continue beyond my master’s. So then I applied to other programs, and Fordham offered an assistantship, and I honestly found cancer easier than some of the things that went wrong there. I showed a writeup to one friend and he wrote, “I already knew all the things you had written up, and I was still shocked when I read it.” All of which to say is that the goal I had of earning a doctorate, and using that degree to teach at a seminary, seemed shattered. With all that happened, the door to earning a Ph.D. was decisively closed.

Now I know that it is possible to teach at a seminary on a master’s; it may be a handicap, but it certainly does not make such a goal impossible. But more broadly God’s hand was at work. For starters, I survived. I believe that a doctor would look at what happened and say, “There were a couple of places where what happened could have killed you. Be glad you’re alive.” And beyond that, there is something of God’s stern mercy: academic writing takes a lot more work than being easy to read, and only a few people can easily read it. I still have lessons to learn about work that is easy to read, and this piece may be the least readable thing I’ve written in a while. But all the same, there is a severe mercy in what God has given. I have a successful website largely due to chance, or rather God’s providence; I was in the right place at the right time and for all my skill in web work happened to have successes I had no right to expect.

And God works through assistive technologies and medicine. When I was in middle school, I had an ankle that got sorer and sorer until my parents went to ask a doctor if hospitalization was justified. The doctor’s response, after taking a sample of the infection, said, “Don’t swing by home; go straight to the hospital and I’ll take care of the paperwork on this end for his admission.” And I was hospitized for a week or so—the bed rest day and night being the first time ever that I managed to get bored teaching myself from my father’s calculus textbook—and after I was discharged I still needed antibiotic injections every four hours. That involved medical treatment is just as activist as assistive technology, and without it I would not have written any the pieces on this website besides the Apple ][ BASIC four dimensional maze.

I am rather glad to be alive now.

So I am in a sense both a Ph.D. person who was lost on Activist terms, but met with something fitting on a Saint’s terms, and a person who was found on Activist terms. God works both ways. But still, there are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in Activism.

Augmented Reality

When I was working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, one part of the introduction I received to the CAVE and Infinity Wall virtual reality was to say that virtual reality “is a superset of reality,” where you could put a screen in front of a wall and see, X-ray-style, wires and other things inside the wall.

Virtual reality does exist, and is popularized by Second Life among many others, but that may not be the main niche carved out. The initial thought was virtual reality, and when the dust has started to settle, the niche carved out is more a matter of augmented reality. Augmented reality includes, on a more humble level, GPS devices and iPhone apps that let you scan a barcode or QR code and pull up web information on the product you have scanned. But these are not the full extent of augmented reality; it’s just an early installment. It is an opportunity to have more and more of our experience rewritten by computers and technology. Augmented technology is probably best taken at a lower dose and domineered.

Big Brother

Big Brother is a collection of technologies, but not a collection of technologies you choose because they will deliver a Big Brother who is watching you. Everything we do electronically is being monitored; for the moment the U.S. government is only using it for squeaky-clean apparent uses, and has been hiding its use. Even the Amish now are being monitored; they have decided not to hook up to a grid, such as electricity or landline phones, but cell phones can be used if they find them expedient to their series of conscious decisions about whether to adopt technologies. Amish use the horse and buggy but not the car, not because the horse is older, but because the horse and buggy provide some limited mobility without tearing apart the local community. The car is rejected not because it is newer, but because it frees people from the tightly bound community they have. And because they carry cell phones, the NSA tracks where they go. They might not do anything about it, but almost everything about us is in control of Big Brother. And though I know at least one person who has decided carrying a cell phone and having an iPass transponder is not worth being tracked, you have to be more Luddite than the Luddites, and know enough of what you are doing that you are already on file, if you are to escape observation.

Big Brother has been introduced step by step, bit by bit. First there were rumors that the NSA was recording all Internet traffic. Then it came out in the open that the NSA was indeed recording all Internet traffic and other electronic communications, and perhaps (as portrayed on one TV program) we should feel sorry for the poor NSA which has to deal with all this data. That’s not the end. Now Big Brother is officially mainly about national security, but this is not an outer limit either. Big Brother will probably appear a godsend in dealing with local crime before an open hand manipulating the common citizen appears. But Big Brother is here already, and Big Brother is growing.

Books and ebooks
I was speaking with one friend who said in reference to Harry Potter that the Harry Potter series got people to read, and anything that gets people to read is good. My response (a tacit response, not a spoken one) is that reading is not in and of itself good. If computers are to be used in an ascetically discriminating fashion, so is the library; if you will recall my earlier writing about slightly inappropriate things at Cambridge and worse at Fordham, every single person I had trouble with was someone who read a lot, and presumably read much more than someone caught up in Harry Potter mania.

Orthodoxy is at heart an oral, or oral-like culture, and while it uses books, it was extremely pejorative when one friend said of a Protestant priest in Orthodox clothes, “I know what book he got that [pastoral practice] from.” The first degree of priesthood is called a ‘Reader’, and when one is tonsured a Reader, the bishop urges the Reader to read the Scriptures. The assumption is not that the laity should be reading but need not read the Scriptures, but that the laity can be doing the job of laity without being literate. Or something like that. Even where there is reading, the transmission of the most imporant things is oral in character, and the shaping of the laity (and presumably clergy) is through the transmission of oral tradition through oral means. In that sense, I as an author stand of something exceptional among Orthodox, and “exceptional” does not mean “exceptionally good.” Most of the Orthodox authors now came to Orthodoxy from the West, and their output may well be appropriate and a fitting offering from what they have. However, the natural, consistent result of formation in Orthodoxy does not usually make a non-author into an author.

As far as books versus ebooks, books (meaning codices) are a technology, albeit a technology that has been around for a long time and will not likely disappear. Ebooks in particular have a long tail effect. The barriers to put an ebook out are much more than to put a traditional book out. It has been said that ebooks are killing Mom and Pop bookstores, and perhaps it is worth taking opportunities to patronize local businesses. But there is another consideration in regards to books versus cheaper Kindle editions. The Kindle may be tiny in comparison to what it holds, and far more convenient than traditional books.

But it is much more capture proof.

“Capture proof”

In military history, the term “capture proof” refers to a weapon that is delicate and exacting in its maintenance needs, so that if it is captured by the enemy, it will rather quickly become useless in enemy soldier’s hands.

The principle can be transposed to technology, except that possessing this kind of “capture proof” technology does not mean that it is an advantage that “we” can use against “them.” It comes much closer to say that FEMA can shut down its usefulness at the flick of a switch. As time has passed, hot technologies become increasingly delicate and capture proof: a laptop is clunkier than a cool tablet, but the list of things one can do with a tablet without network access is much shorter than the list of things can do with a laptop without network access. Or, to take the example of financial instruments, the movement has been towards more and more abstract derivatives, and these are fragile compared to an investment in an indexed mutual fund, which is in turn fragile compared to old-fashioned money.

“Cool,” “fragile,” and “capture proof” are intricately woven into each other.

Einstein said, “I do not know what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” We might not have to wait until World War IV. Much of World War III may be fought with sticks and stones.

Cars
Perhaps the most striking Luddite horror of cars that I have seen is in C.S. Lewis. He talked about how they were called “space-conquering devices,” while they should have been called “space-annihilating devices,” because he experienced future shock that cars could make long distances very close. (And someone has said, “The problem with the English is that they think a hundred miles is a long distance, and the problem with the U.S. is that they think a hundred years is a long time.”) The “compromise solution” he offered was that it was OK to use cars to go further as a special solution on weekend, but go with other modes of transport for the bread-and-butter of weekdays. (And this is more or less how Europeans lean.)

Cars are one of many technologies that, when introduced, caused future shock. It’s taken as normal by subsequent generations, but there is a real sense of “This new technology is depriving us of something basically human,” and that pattern repeats. And perhaps, in a sense, this shock is the pain we experience as we are being lessened by degrees and slowly turning from man to machine-dominated.

CFLs and incandescent bulbs

There is something striking about CFL’s. American society has a long history of technology migrations, and a thorough enough “out with the old, in with the new” that working 16mm film projectors, for instance, now fetch a price because we have so thoroughly gotten rid of them in favor of video. And people who use them now aren’t using them as the normal way to see video; they may want to see old film canisters and maybe even digitize them (so they can be seen without the use of a film projector).

Compare with other countries such as Lebanon which have no real concept of being obsolete; they have a mix of old and new technologies and they get rid of an old piece of technology, not because it is old, but because it is worn out.

The fact that we are transitioning to CFL’s for most purposes is not striking; transitions happen all the time. One could trace “If you have a phone, it’s a landline,” to “You can have a two pound car phone, but it’s expensive,” to “You can have a cell phone that fits in your hand, but it’s expensive,” to “You can have a cell phone, which is much cheaper now,” to “You can have a cell phone that does really painful Internet access,” to “You can have a cell phone with graceful Internet access.” And there have been many successions like this, all because the adopters thought the new technology was an improvement on the old.

CFL’s are striking and disturbing because, while there may be a few people who think that slightly reduced electricity usage (much smaller than a major household appliance) justifies the public handling fragile mercury containers, by and large the adoption is not of a snazzier successor to incandescent bulbs. Not only must they be handled like live grenades, but the light is inferior. The human race grew up on full-spectrum light, such as the sun provides. Edison may not have been aiming for a full-spectrum light, but his light bulb does provide light across the spectrum; that is an effect of an incandescent light that produces light that looks at all near. This is a strange technology migration, and a rather ominous omen.

Given that most bulbs available now are CFL’s, there are better and worse choices. Some bulbs have been made with a filter outside the glass so they give off light that looks yellow rather than blue. I wouldn’t look for that in and of itself. But some give a full spectrum, even if it is a bluish full spectrum, and that is better. There are also lights sold that are slightly more shatter resistant, which is commendable, and there are some bulbs that are both full spectrum and shatter resistant. I’d buy the last kind if possible, or else a full spectrum CFL, at a hardware store if possible and online if not.

But I would momentarily like to turn attention from the extinction of regular use of incandescent bulbs to their introduction. Candles have been used since time immemorial, but they’re not a dimmer version of a light bulb. Even if you have candlesticks and candles lit, the candle is something of a snooze button or a minor concession: societies that used candles still had people active more or less during daylight hours. (Daylight Saving Time was an attempt to enable people to use productive daylight hours which they were effectively losing.) People who used candles were still effectively tied to the cycle of day and night. Light bulbs caused a shock because they let you operate as early or as late as you wanted. Candles allowed you to wrap up a few loose ends when night had really fallen. Light bulbs made nighttime optional. And it caused people future shock.

I have mentioned a couple of different responses to CFL’s: the first is to buy full spectrum and preferably shatter resistant (and even then handle the mercury containers like a live grenade), the second is turning to the rhythm of day and light and getting sunlight where you can. Note that inside most buildings, even with windows, sunlight is not nearly as strong as what the human person optimally needs. Let me mention one other possibility.

There is a medical diagnosis called ‘SAD’ for ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, whose patients have lower mood during the winter months when we see very little light. The diagnosis seems to me a bit like the fad diagnosis of YTD, or Youthful Tendency Disorder, discussed in The Onion. If you read about it and are half-asleep it sounds like a description of a frightening syndrome. If you are awake you will recognize a description of perfectly normal human tendencies. And the SAD diagnosis of some degree of depression when one is consistently deprived of bright light sounds rather normal to me. And for that reason I think that some of the best lighting you can get is with something from the same manufacturer of the Sunbox DL SAD Light Box Light Therapy Desk Lamp. That manufacturer is one I trust; I am a little wary of some of their cheaper competitors. There is one cheaper alternative that provides LED light. Which brings me to a problem with LED’s. Basically, LEDs emit light of a single color. While you can choose what that color may be, white represents a difficult balancing act. If you’ve purchased one of those LED flashlights, it has what is called “lunar white”, which is basically a way of cheating at white light. (If you’ve ever gone to a dark closet and tried to pick out clothing by a lunar white flashlight, this may be why you had trouble telling what color your clothing was.) Expensive as they may be, a Sunbox light box may fit in to your best shot at taking in a healthy level of light.

Children’s toys

Charles Baudelaire, in his “la Morale du Joujou” (“the moral of the toy”) talks about toys and the fact that the best toys leave something to the imagination. Children at play will imagine that a bar of soap is a car; girls playing with dolls will play the same imagined drama with rag dolls as they will with dolls worth hundreds of dollars. There has been a shift, where Lego sets have shifted from providing raw material to being a specific model, made of specilized pieces, that the child is not supposed to imagine, only to assemble. Lego sets are perhaps the preferred childhood toy of professional engineers everywhere; some of them may have patronized Lego’s competitors, but the interesting thing about Legos that are not “you assemble it” models is that you have to supply something to what you’re building. Lego the company might make pieces of different sizes and shapes and made them able to stick together without an adhesive; I wouldn’t downplay that achievement on the part of the manufacturer, but the child playing with Legos supplies half of the end result. But this is not just in assembly; with older models, the Legos didn’t look exactly like what they were supposed to be. There was one time when I saw commercials for a miniature track where some kind of car or truck would transport a payload (a ball bearing, perhaps), until it came to a certain point and the payload fell through the car/track through a chute to a car below. And when I asked my parents to buy it for me and they refused, I built it out of Legos. Of course it did not look anything like what I was emulating, but I had several tracks on several levels and a boxy square of a vehicle would carry a marble along the track until it dropped its payload onto a car in the level below. With a bit of imagination it was a consolation for my parents not getting the (probably expensive) toy I had asked for, and with a bit of imagination a short broom is a horse you can ride, a taut cord with a sheet hung over it is an outdoor tent, and a shaky box assembled from sofa cushions is a fort. Not, perhaps, that children should be given no toys, or a square peg should be pounded into a round hole by giving everyone old-style Lego kits, but half of a children’s toy normally resides in the imagination, and the present fashion in toys is to do all the imagining for the child.

And there is a second issue in what is imagined for children. I have not looked at toys recently, but from what I understand dragons and monsters are offered to them. I have looked rather deeply into what is offered to children for reading. The more innocuous part is bookstores clearing the classics section of the children’s area for Disney Princess books. The more serious matter is with Dealing with Dragons and other Unman’s Tales.

The Cloud

Cloud computing is powerful, and it originated as a power tool in supercomputing, and has now come down to personal use in software like Evernote, a note-taking software system that synchronizes across all computers and devices which have it installed.

Essentially, besides being powerful, cloud computing, besides being very powerful, is one more step in abstraction in the world of computing. It means that you use computers you have never even seen. Not that this is new; it is a rare use case for someone using the Web to own any of the servers for the sites he is visiting. But none the less the older pattern is for people to have their own computers, with programs they have downloaded and/or purchased, and their own documents. The present trend to offload more and more of our work to the cloud is a step in the direction of vulnerability to the damned backswing. The more stuff you have in the cloud, the more of your computer investment can be taken away at the flick of a switch, or collapse because some intervening piece of the puzzle has failed. Not that computers are self-sufficient, but the move to the cloud is a way of being less self-sufficient.

My website is hosted on a cloud virtual private server, with one or two “hot spares” that I have direct physical access to. There are some reasons the physical machine, which has been flaky for far longer than a computer should be allowed to be flaky (and which keeps not getting fixed), is one I keep as a hot spare.

Contraception and Splenda
There was one mostly Catholic where I was getting annoyed at the degree of attention given to one particular topic: I wrote,

Number of posts in this past month about faith: 6

Number of posts in this past month about the Bible: 8

Number of posts in this past month about the Eucharist: 9

Number of posts in this past month extolling the many wonders of Natural Family Planning: 13

The Catholic Church’s teaching on Natural Family Planning is not, “Natural Family Planning, done correctly, is a 97% effective way to simulate contraception.” The Catholic Church’s teaching on children is that they are the crown and glory of sexual love, and way down on page 509 there is a footnote saying that Natural Family Planning can be permissible under certain circumstances.

And if I had known it, I would have used a quotation from Augustine I cited in Contraception, Orthodoxy, and Spin Doctoring: A look at an influential but disturbing article:

Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage, and makes the woman not a wife, but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion. Where there is a wife there must be marriage. But there is no marriage where motherhood is not in view; therefore neither is there a wife. In this way you forbid marriage. Nor can you defend yourselves successfully from this charge, long ago brought against you prophetically by the Holy Spirit (source; the Blessed Augustine is referring to I Tim 4:1-3).

Thus spoke the Catholic Church’s favorite ancient theologian on contraception; and to this it may be added that the term ‘Natural Family Planning’ is deceptive and perhaps treacherous in how it frames things. There is nothing particularly natural about artificially abstaining from sexual intercourse precisely when a woman is capable of the greatest desire, pleasure, and response.

The chief good of the marriage act is that it brings in to being new images of God; “a baby is God’s vote that the world should go on.” The chief good of eating is that it nourishes the body. Now there are also pleasures, but it is an act of confusion to see them as pleasure delivery systems and an act of greater confusions to frustrate the greater purpose of sex or eating so that one may, as much as possible, use them just as pleasure delivery systems.

There are other strange effects of this approach: for starters, Splenda use correlates to increased weight gain. Perhaps this is not strange: if you teach someone, “You can eat as much candy and drink as many soft drinks as you like,” the lesson is “You can consume more without worrying about your waistline,” and you will consume more: not only more foods containing Splenda, but more foods not containing Splenda.

There is an interesting history, as far as “Natural” Family Planning goes, about how in ancient times Church Fathers were skeptical at best of the appropriateness of sex during the infertile period, then people came to allow sex during the infertile period despite the fact that it was shooting blanks, and then the West came to a point where priests hearing confessions were to insinuate “Natural” Family Planning to couples who were using more perverse methods to have sex without children, and finally the adulation that can say that Natural Family Planning is the gateway to the culture of life.

Contraception and Splenda are twins, and with Splenda I include not only other artificial sweeteners, but so-called “natural” sweeteners like Agave and Stevia which happen not to be manufactured in a chemical factory, but whose entire use is to do Splenda’s job of adding sweetness without calories. What exists in the case of contraception and Splenda alike is neutralizing a greater good in order to have as much of the pleasure associated with that good as possible. It says that the primary purpose of food and sex, important enough to justify neutralizing other effects as a detriment to focusing on the pleasure, is to be a pleasure delivery system.

About pleasure delivery systems, I would refer you to:

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome

The dialectic between pleasure and pain is a recurrent theme among the Fathers and it is something of a philosophical error to pursue pleasure and hope that no pain will come. If you want to see real discontent with one’s sexual experiences, look for those who are using Viagra and its kin to try to find the ultimate sexual thrill. What they will find is that sex becomes a disappointment: first sex without drugged enhancement becomes underwhelming, and then Viagra or Cialis fail to deliver the evanescent ultimate sexual thrill.

The Damned Backswing
There is a phenomenon where something appears to offer great improvements, but it has a damned backswing. For one example in economics, in the 1950’s the U.S. had an unprecedentedly high standard of living (meaning more appliances in houses—not really the best measure of living), and for decades it just seemed like, It’s Getting Better All the Time. But now the U.S. economy is being destroyed, and even with another regime, we would still have all the debts we incurred making things better all the time.

Another instance of the damned backswing is how medieval belief in the rationality of God gave rise to the heroic labors of science under the belief that a rational God would create a rational and ordered world, which gave way to modernism and positivism which might as well have put science on steroids, which in turn is giving way to a postmodernism and subjectivism that, even as some of it arose from the philosophy of science, is fundamentally toxic to objectivist science.

I invite you to read more about the damned backswing.

Email, texting, and IM’s
“Email is for old people,” one youngster said, and email is largely the wave of the past. Like landlines and desktop computers, it will probably not disappear completely; it will probably remain the communication channel of corporate notifications and organizational official remarks. But social communication via email is the wave of the past: an article in A List Apart said that the website had originated as a mailing list, and added, “Kids, go ask your parents.”

When texting first caught on it was neither on the iPhone nor the Droid. If you wanted to say, “hello”, you would probably have to key in, “4433555555666”. But even then texting was a sticky technology, and so far it is the only common technology I know of that is illegal to ue when driving. It draws attention in a dangerous way and is treated like alcohol in terms of something that can impair driving. It is a strong technological drug.

The marketing proposition of texting is an intravenous drip of noise. IM’s are similar, if not always as mobile as cell phones, and email is a weaker form of the drug that youth are abandoning for a stronger version. Now, it should also be said that they are useful, and the proper ascetical use is to take advantage of them because they are useful (or not; I have a phone plan without texting and I text rarely enough that the default $.20 per text makes sense and is probably cheaper than the basic plan.

Fasting and fasting from technologies

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

The healing of this comes in partly by eating, in the Holy Mysteries where we eat from the Tree of Life. But this is no imitation of Eve’s sin, or Adam’s. They lived in the garden of paradise, and there is no record of them fasting before taking from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before we take communion, we answer the question “Where are you?”, the question in which God invited Adam and Eve to come clean and expose their wound to the Healer, and we prepare for confession and answer the question Adam and Eve dodged: “Where are you?” We do not live in a garden of delights, but our own surroundings, and we turn away from sensual pleasures. Adam and Eve hid from God; we pray to him and do not stop praying because of our own sordid unworthiness. And, having prepared, we eat from the Tree of Life.

You shall not surely die. and Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, are some of the oldest marketing propositions, but they are remarkably alive in the realm of technology. Witness the triumph of hope over experience in the artificial intelligence project. Witness a society like the meticulously groomed technology of a Buddha who saw an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, and wondered whatever on earth they can mean. Mortality may be as total in our generation as any other, but we’ve done a good job of hiding it. Perhaps doctors might feel inadequate in the face of real suffering, but modern medicine can do a lot. In many areas of the third world, it might be painful, but it is not surprising to play with a child who was doing well two weeks ago and be told that he is dead. Death is not something one expects in homes; it is out of sight and half out of mind in hospitals and hospices. All of this is to say that those of us in the first world have a death-denying society, and if we have not ultimately falsified “You will surely die,” we’ve done a pretty good job of being in denial about it. And “You shall be as gods” is the marketing proposition of luxury cars, computers, smartphones, and ten thousand other propositions. My aunt on discovering Facebook said, “It feels like I am walking on water,” and Facebook offers at least a tacit marketing proposition of, “You shall be as gods.” Information technology in general, and particularly the more “sexy” forms of information technology, offer the marketing proposition of, Your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods.

There was one time as an undergraduate when I tried to see what it would be like to live as blind for a day, and so I was blindfolded and had a fascinating day which I wrote up for my psychology class. Now I would be careful in saying based on one day’s experience would let me understand the life experience of being blind, any more than a few days spent in Ontario entitle me to say that I understand Canadian culture. However, the experience was an interesting challenge, and it had something to do with fasting, even if it was more adventuresome than fasting normally is.

Fasting is first and foremost fasting from food, but there are other things one can fast from. Some Orthodox bid Facebook a temporary farewell for fasting seasons. On fasting days, we are bidden to cut back on sensory pleasures, which can mean cutting back on luxury technologies that give us pleasure.

I’m not sure how much fastiing from technologies should form a part of one’s rule; it is commonplace to discuss with one’s priest or spiritual father how one will keep one’s fast, and with what oikonomia if such is needed. But one of the rules of fasting is that one attempts a greater and greater challenge. Far from beiing a spiritual backwater, Lent is the central season of the Christian year. And so I will present twenty-three things you might do to fast from technology. (Or might not.)

  1. Sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor. (Monks mention sleeping on the floor as a discipline; the attenuated fast of sleeping on a sleepiing bag on the floor may help.)
  2. Leave your smartphone at home for a day.
  3. Leave all consumer electronics at home for a day.
  4. Only check for email, Facebook, etc. once every hour, instead of all the time.
  5. Don’t check your email; just write letters with a pen or lead pencil.
  6. Camp out in your back yard.
  7. Read a book outside, using sunscreen if appropriate.
  8. Organize some outdoor activity with your friennds or family.
  9. Don’t use your computer or smartphone while you are preparing for the Eucharist.
  10. Basic: If you have games and entertainment apps or application, don’t play them when you are fasting.
  11. Harder: If you have games and entertainment applications, delete them.
  12. Basic: Spend an hour outside with a book or an ebook Kindle, doing nothing but read and observe the trees, the wind. and the grass growing. (You are welcome to use my ebooks.)
  13. Harder: Spend an hour outide, but not with a book, just observing the trees, the wind, and the grass growing.
  14. Don’t use your car for a week. It’s OK to get rides, and it may be a pleasure speaking with your friends, but experience being, in part, dependent, and you may be surprised how some of your driving suddenly seems superflous.
  15. Shut off power for an hour. If you keep your fridge and freezer doors shut, you shouldn’t lose food, and sometimes power loss has meant adventure.
  16. Turn off your computer’s network access but still see what you can do with it for a day. (The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written largely on a computer that doesn’t have internet access forr the majority of the time it is being used to write this.)
  17. Especially if you have a beautiful screensaver, set your computer to just display a blank screen, and have a single color or otherwise dull wallpaper for a time, perhaps for a fasting season.
  18. Switch your computer’s resolution to 800×600 or the tiniest it can go. That will take away much of its status as a luxury.
  19. Make a list of interesting things to do that do not involve a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
  20. Do some of the vibrant things on the list that do not involve a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
  21. Use computers or whatever other technologies, not for what you can get from them, but what you can give through them.
  22. Bear a little more pain. If pain is bearable, don’t take pain medication. If you can deal with a slightly warmer room in the summer, turn down the air conditioning. If you can deal with a slightly cooler room in the winter, turn down the heat.
  23. Visit a monastery.A monastery is not thought of in terms of being Luddite, but monasteries tend to be lower in level than technology, and a good monastery shows the vibrancy of life not centered about technology. And this suggestion is different.All the other suggestions say, “I would suggest.” The suggestion about the monastery says, “God has given.”
Food
There is some ambiguity, or better yet a double meaning, when the New Testament uses the term “breaking bread.” On one level, breaking bread means a shared meal around the table. On another, it means celebrating the Eucharist.

You can say that there is one sacrament, or that there are seven, or that there are a million sacraments. A great many things in life have a sacramental dimension, even if the man on the street would not consider these to be religious matters. There is something sacramental about friendship. And there is something sacramental about a meal around a table. Even if the sacramental character of a meal is vanishing.

Proverbs said, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.” Today one may draw forth an implication: “Better is a dinner of really bad fast food than the most exquisite Weston A. Price Foundation meal where there is hatred.”

However, there are ways that the sacramental character of meals is falling away. Many foods are not intended to be eaten around a table with family or friends: think of microwave dinners and the 100 calorie snack pack. Read Nourishing Traditions, which tells how far our industrial diet has diverged from meals that taste delicious precisely because they are nutritionally solid.

But besides the plastic-like foods of the industrial diet, there is another concern with munching or inhaling. The Holy Eucharist can legitimately be served, in an extreme case, with plastic-like foods. For that matter it is normal for it to be made with white flour, and white flour is high on the list of foods that should be limited. And it would be a mistake to insist on whole wheat flour because it is overall healthier. But with extreme exceptions such as grave illness, the Holy Mysteries are not to be consumed by oneself off in a corner. They are part of the unhurried unfolding of the Divine Liturgy, which ideally unfolds rather naturally into the unhurried unfolding of a common meal.

Both eating snacks continually to always have the pleasure of the palate, and the solo meal that is inhaled so it can be crammed into an over-busy schedule, fall short of the (broadly) sacramental quality of a common meal around a table.

In Alaska there are many people but not so many priests, and therefore many parishes rarely celebrate the Divine Liturgy. And a bishop, giving advice, gave two pastoral directions to the faithful: first that they should pray together, and second that they should eat together.

Let us try harder to eat with others.

“Forms of life” (Wittgenstein)

I’m not Wittgenstein’s biggest fan, and I wince when people speak of “after Wittgenstein.” But his concept of “forms of life” is relevant here. A form of life is something that is structural to how people live, and normally tacit; a professor was searching for an example of “forms of life” to give to the class, and after a couple of minutes of silence I said, “You are trying to a difficult thing. You are trying to find something that is basically tacit and not consciously realized, but that people will recognize once it is pointed out. I guess that you have thought of a few possibilities and rejected them because they fall around on one of those criteria.” And he searched a bit more, and gave the example of, “It used to be that procreation was seen as necessary for human flourishing. Now people think that limiting procreation is seen as necessary for human flourishing.”

Arguably a Luddite’s Guide to Forms of Life would be more useful than The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, but in the discussion of different technologies there is always a concern for what Wittgenstein would call forms of life. It is possible to turn on the television for 10 minutes a day for weather information, and that retains the same form of life as not using television at all. Watching television for hours a day is, and shapes, a distinct form of life. And in some sense the basic question addressed in this work is not, “What technologies are you using?” but “What forms of life do you have given your technology usage?

Future shock

Some people have said that Americans are in a constant state of “future shock,” “future shock” being understood by analogy to “culture shock”, which is a profoundly challenging state when you are in a culture that tramples assumptions you didn’t know you had. Not all of future shock is in relation to technology, but much of it is.

We think of a “rising standard of living,” meaning more unfamiliar possessions in many cases, and even if the economy itself is not a rising standard of living now, we have accepted the train of new technology adoption as progress, but there has been something in us that says, “This is choking something human.” And in a sense this has always been right, the older technologies as the new, for movies as much as augmented reality.

One author said, “The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”

GPS

GPS is in general an example of something that has a double effect. Traditionally advertising in an overall effect helps people to covet what a company has to offer, and the behavior stimulated by the advertising is to advance the company’s interest, even though the company never says “We are making this so that we will acquire more money or market share.” As in How to Win Friends and Influence People, the prime actor is attempting to pursue his or her own interests, while it is presented entirely as being to the advantage of the other party on the other party’s terms.

Apple didn’t just change the game by making the first smartphone done right, in which regard the iPhone is commonly considered more significant than the Macintosh. The company that invented and still sells the Macintosh has established something more important than owning a Macintosh: owning an iPhone or iPad, which unlike the Macintosh generate a steady subscription income stream. The price for my MacBook was 100% up front: now that I’ve made the one-time purchase, I do not have any further financial obligations that will filter to Apple. My iPhone, on the other hand, has a subscription and contract; part of my hefty baseline phone bill goes to Apple. And if I were to purchase an iPad, I would have two subscriptions. (The main reason I have not seriously moved towards buying an iPad is not what I would pay up front; it is adding another subscription.)

The GPS also has a double effect. It is what science fiction writers called a “tracking device.” Now it is a terrifically useful traffic advice; part of the marketing proposition offered for Sila on the iPhone 4 S is that it makes terrifically resourceful use of a GPS. (“I feel like a latte.”—and it is the GPS that Sila uses to find nearby locations where one might find a latte.) On a more pedestrian level GPS for driving(or biking, or walking) has become so entrenched that people don’t know what they’d do without it to reach unfamiliar locations. I have never heard someone question the utility of a GPS for this or other purposes, and I’ve heard of interesting-sounding hobbies like geocaching where you navigate to specified coordinates and then search out and find some hidden attraction in the area indicated by the GPS.

But for all of these things, GPSes, as well as cell phones in general, provide one more means for Big Brother (and possibly more than one Big Brother) to know exactly where you go, when you go there, what the patterns are, and other things where Big Brotherwill keep closer tabs on your whereabouts and activities than your spouse or parent. IBM published a book on “Why IBM for Big Data?” and made it very clear that Big Brother analysis of data isn’t just for No Such Agency. It’s also for the corporate world. One author told the seemingly attractive story of having made repeated negative posts on his FaceBook wall, slamming an airline after repeated problems, and the airline reached out to him and gave him a service upgrade. This was presented in the most positive light, but it was very clear that business were being invited to use IBM’s expertise to do Big Data Big Brother analysis on social networks.

Guns and modern weapons (for fantasy swords, see Teleporters)

Let me give a perhaps controversial preamble before directly talking about weapons.

I have spoken both with NRA types and anti-gun advocates, and there is a telling difference. The anti-gun advocates point to hard-hitting, emotional news stories where a walking arsenal opens fire in a school and kills many people. The NRA types may briefly talk about selective truth-telling and mention an incident where someone walked into a church armed to kill a bear, and an off-duty security guard who was carrying a gun legally and with the explicit permission of church leadership, “stopped the crime.” But that is something of a tit-for-tat sideline to the main NRA argument, which is to appeal to statistical studies that show that legal gun ownership does not increase crime.

I have a strong math background and I am usually wary of statistics. However, I find it very striking that anti-gun advocates have never in my experience appealed to statistics to show that legal gun ownership increases crome, but only give hard-hitting emotional images, while the bread-and-butter of NRA argument is an appeal to research and statistics. I’ve never personally investigated those statistics, but there is something suspicious and fishy when only one side of a debate seriously appeals to research and statistics.

With that preamble mentioned, learning to really use a gun is a form of discipline and stillness, and I tried to capture it in the telescope scene in Within the Steel Orb. Hunting can be a way to be close to your food, and I approve of hunting for meat but not hunting for taxidermy. However, sacramental shopping for weapons is as bad as any other sacramental shopping. I would tentatively say that if you want skill with a weapon, and will train to the point that it becomes something of a spiritual discipline, then buying a weapon makes sense. If you want to buy a gun because all the cool guys in action-adventure movies have one, or you are not thinking of the work it takes to handle a gun safely and use it accurately, I would question the appropriateness of buying a gun.

(Owning a gun because that is part of your culture is one thing; buying a gun because they are glamorized in movies is another thing entirely.)

And that is without investigating the question of whether it is appropriate to use violence in the first place. St. George the soldier and the passion-bearers Ss. Boris and Gleb are both honored by the Church; yet the better path is the one set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.

Heating and air conditioning
A college roommate commented that middle class Americans had basically as much creature comforts were available. Not that they can buy everything one would want; but there is a certain point beyond which money cannot purchase necessities, only luxuries, and then a certain point after that where money cannot purchase luxuries, only status symbols, and a point beyond that where money cannot purchase any more meaningful status symbols, only power. And middle class Americans may well not be able to purchase every status symbol they want, but really there is not much more creature comfort that would come with ten times one’s salary.

Heating and air conditioning are one such area, and monastics wear pretty much the same clothing in summer and winter. One Athonite monk talked about a story about how several Russian sailors made a fire and stood close, and still did not feel warm, while islanders who were barely clad stood some distance off and were wincing because of the heat. We lose some degree of spiritual strength if we insist on having cool buildings in the summer and warm buildings in the winter. Even just cutting back a bit, so that buildings are warm but not hot in the summer and cool but not cold in the winter would constitute a spiritual victory. Usually this sort of thing is argued for environmental reasons; I am not making the argument that the lowered utility usage is good for the environment but that the lowered utility usage is constructive and, in the old phrase, “builds character.” Indoor tracks exist, but in the summer I see bicyclists and runners exercising hard in the summer. These people are not super-heroes, and exercising in the heat really does not seem to be much of a deterrent to getting one’s artificially added exercise. The human body and spirit together are capable of a great deal more sturdiness, when instead of always seeking comfort we learn that we can function perfectly well after adjusting to discomfort. (And this is not just with heating and air conditioning; it is true with a lot of things.)

Hospitality

There is an ancient code of hospitality that recently has been influenced by consumer culture. What commercial marketing does, or at least did, to make a gesture of friendship and welcome was by offering a selection of choices carefully fitted to the demographics being targeted. Starbucks not only established that you could market an experience that would command a much higher price than a bottomless cup of coffee at a regular diner; they sold not one coffee but many coffees. You had a broad selection of consumer choices. Starbucks was doubtlessly more successful than some frozen yoghurt places I visited in grad school, which offered something like fifty or more flavors and varieties of yoghurts and had staff who were mystified when customers said, “But I just want some frozen yoghurt!” As a nuance, Starbucks offers guidance and suggestions for the undecided—and a large number of choices for the decided.

And in light of the hospitality industry, hosts offer guests choices and sometimes mystify them by the offering: a guest, according to the older (unwritten) code, did not have the responsibility of choosing what would be offered. Now perhaps I need to clarify, or maybe don’t need to clarify, that if you have a severe peanut allergy and your host offers you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you are not duty bound to accept it. But even then, social graces come to play. I remembered one time, at a feast although not strictly a host/guest relationship, when I offered a friend a glass of port and he kindly reminded me that he was a recovering alcoholic. I apologized profusely, and he stopped me and said, “I appreciate the offer, I just can’t drink it.” So then I offered him something he could consume, and he took it and thanked me for it. Social graces apply.

But this is something of a footnote. There is a story of a staretz or monastic spiritual father who was going with one of a monk’s disciples, and they visited a monastery that was feasting with bread, and the elder and disciple both shared in that informal communion, and then the two of them resumed their journey. The disciple asked the master if he could drink water, and to his astonishment was told no. The master, in answering his question, said, “That was love’s bread. But let us keep the fast.” The Fathers are very clear: as one priest said, “Hospitality trumps fasting.” And the assumption there is that fasting is important enough. This piece originated with the title, “Fasting from technologies.” But hospitality is even more important.

The ancient rule of hospitality, although this is never thought of in these terms with today’s understanding of authority, is that the host has a profound authority over the guest which the guest will obey, even to the point of trumping fasting. But this is not what we may think of as despotism: the entire purpose and focus of the host’s role in hospitality is to extend the warmest welcome to the guest. I remember one time when a friend visited from Nigeria, and although I set some choices before them, when I said, “We can do A, B, and C; I would recommend B,” in keeping with hospitality they seemed to always treat my pick as tacit authority and went along with me. It was a wonderful visit; my friend made a comment about being treated like royalty, but my thought was not about how well I was treating them. My thought was that this would probably be the last time I saw my friend and her immediate family face to face, and I’d better make it count.

I might comment that this is tied to our inability today to understand a husband’s authority over his wife and the wife’s submission. The rôle is somewhat like that of host and guest. A liberal source speaking on the Ephesians haustafel as it dealt with husbands and wives said that it did not portray marriage in terms of the husband’s authority, while a conservative source understood authority at a deeper level: it said that nowhere here (or anywhere else in the Bible) are husbands urged, “Exercise your authority!”, but the text that says, Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord, also says, Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it. If the wife’s role is to submit herself to her husband as to the Lord, the husband’s role is to give up his life as Christ was crucified for the Church.

And all of this seems dead to us as we have grown dead to it. The role of hospitality, including authority, is infinitely less important than marriage, yet we see a husband’s authority as external and domineering, when it is less external than the host’s authority. And I am drawn to memories of visiting one very traditional couple where both of them exuded freedom and comfort and dealing with them felt like a foot sliding into a well-fitting shoe. But if we see a husband having authority over a wife as a foreign imposition and nothing like the implicit authority we do not even recognize between host and guest (where the host’s authority consists in making every decision to show as much kindness as possible to the guest), this is not a defect in marriage but in our deafened ears.

An intravenous drip of noise

“Silence is the language of the age to come,” as others have said. Hesychasm is a discipline of stillness, of silence, of Be still and know that I am God. Whether spiritual silence is greater than other virtues, I do not wish to treat here; suffice it to say that all virtues are great health, and all vices are serious spiritual diseases, and all are worth attention.

There are a number of technologies whose marketing proposition is as a noise delivery system. The humble radio offers itself as a source of noise. True, there are other uses, such as listening to a news radio station for weather and traffic, but just having a radio on in the background is noise. Other sources of noise include television, iPods, smartphones, the web, and top sites like FaceBook, Google Plus, and the like. Right use of these tends to be going in and out for a task, even if the task lasts five hours, versus having noise as a drone in the background.

In terms of social appropriateness, there is such a thing as politely handling something that is basically rude. For one example, I was visiting a friend’s house and wanted to fix his printer, and apologetically said I was going to call my brother and called him to ask his opinion as a computer troubleshooter. I handled the call as something that was basically rude even though the express purpose was to help with something he had asked about and it was a short call. And it was handled politely because I handled it as something that is basically rude. And other people I know with good manners do sometimes make or receive a cell phone call when you otherwise have their attention, but they do so apologetically, which suggests that just ignoring the other person and making a phone call is rude. In other words, they politely handle the interruption by treating it as something that is basically rude, even if (as in the case I mentioned) the entire intention of the call was to help me help the friend I was visiting.

Something like this applies to our use of technology. There are things that are entirely appropriate if we handle them as something that is basically “rude.” Or, perhaps, “noisy.” The equivalent of making a long phone call when you are with someone, without offering any apology or otherwise treating it as basically rude, is laying the reins on the horse’s neck and allowing technologies to function as a noise delivery system. And what we need is to unplug our intravenous drip of noise.

Silence can be uncomfortable if you are used to the ersatz companionship of noise. If you have been in a building and step outside into the sunlight at noon, you may be dazzled. Most spiritual discicplines stretch us into something that is uncomfortable at first: the point is to be stretched more each time. The Philokalia talks about how people hold on to sin because they think it adorns them: to this may be added that after you repent and fear a shining part of you may be lost forever, you realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell.” Silence is like this; we want a noise delivery system as a drone, and once we begin to get used to its absence, there is a deeper joy. It may take time; it takes something like a year for a recovering alcoholic’s brain chemistry to reset. But once we have got rid of the drug, once we have repented and sought to bear fruit worthy of repentance, we may find ourselves (to adapt the title of a book) blindsided by joy.

Killing time
“You cannot kill time,” the saying goes, “without injuring eternity.”

At least one breakdown of mobile users has said that they fall into three groups: “Urgent now,” people who have some degree of emergency and need directions, advice, contingency plans, and the like, “Repeat now,” people who are monitoring information like whether or how their stocks are doing, and “Bored now,” people who are caught and have some time to kill, and look for a diversion.

“Bored now” use of cell phones is simply not constructive spiritually; it offers a virtual escape for the here and now God has given us, and it is the exact opposite of the saying, “Your cell [as a monk] will teach you everything you need to know.”

The lead pencil

The lead pencil is a symbol of an alternative to an overly technologized world; one organization of people who have made a conscious decision to avoid the encroachment of technology chose the lead pencil as their emblem and formed the Lead Pencil Club.

But the lead pencil is a work of technology, and one that 99% of humans who ever lived have never seen any more than a cuneiform stylus or any other writing implement. And even such a seemingly humble technology comes about in an impressive fashion; one economist wrote a compelling case that only God knows how pencils are made.

Sitting down and writing letters is a valuable discipline, but the norm that has been lived by 99% of the human race is oral culture; anthropologists have increasingly realized that the opposite of “written” culture is not “illiterate” culture but “oral” culture. And the weapon that slides through the chink in oral culture’s armor is the writing implement, such as the lead pencil. It is not the computer, but the lead pencil and its kin, that serve as a disease vector to destroy age-old orality of culture.

This is not to say that you can’t try to use computer keyboards less and pens and pencils more. But understand that you’re not turning the clock all the way back by writing handwritten letters, however commendable the love in handwritten letters may be. The lead pencil is a technology and to those societies that embrace it, it is the death knell to an old way.

The long tail

The long tail can be your best friend, or an insidious enemy.

Let me briefly outline the long tail. A retail bookstore needs to sell one copy of a book in a year’s time, or else it is losing them money: shelf space is an expensive commodity. And all of this leads to a form of implicit censorship, not because bookstores want to stamp out certain books, but because if it’s not a quick seller or a safe bet it’s a liability.

By contrast, Amazon has large volumes of shelf space; their warehouses might comfortably store a city. And it costs them some money to acquire books, but the price of keeping books available is insignificant compared to a brick-and-mortar bookstore. And what that means, and not just on Amazon, that the economic censorship is lifted. People used to wonder who would be able to fill hundreds or more cable channels; now Youtube would be hard pressed to reduce itself down to a thousand channels. And so a much larger portion of Amazon’s profits comes from having an enormous inventory of items that occasionally make a sale.

There is specialization implicit in the long tail; if you want to know how to make something, chances are pretty good that some blog explains how. And the proper ascetical use of technology, or Luddite if you prefer, uses things differently than the mainstream. Nobody in a phone store is going to tell you that an intravenous drip of noise in terms of text messages that go on even when you are trying to sleep does not make you happier than if you use texting when there is a special need. Some of the best resources you will find for ascetical use of technology are to be found in the long tail.

But there is something else that comes with it. The temptation is to be off in our own customized worlds, with everything around our interests. And that is a form of spiritual poverty. Part of an age-old ascesis has been learning how to deal with the people who are around you, localist style, instead of pursuing your own nooks and crannies. The monoculture of retail stores in America was first a problem, not because it had no long tail effects, but because it supplanted at least an implicit localism. Local cultures gave way to plastic commercial culture.

And we can use the long tail to our profit, if we don’t lay the reins on the horse’s neck. Shopping on the Internet for things that won’t be local stores is one thing; shopping on the Internet so you don’t have to get out of your pyjamas is another.

The long tail can be a gold mine, but it is subject to the damned backswing.

Marketing proposition

There was one CIA official who said, being interviewed by a journalist, that he would never knowingly hire someone who was attracted by the romance of cloak and dagger work. Now this was quite obviously someone who did want to hire people who would be a good fit, but someone who wants to join a cloak and dagger agency as a gateway to have life feel like a James Bond movie is off on the wrong foot.

I doubt if any major intelligence agency has promoted James Bond movies because they think it’s a good way to draw the right recruits, but James Bond movies function as highly effective advertisements. They may not lead people to be able to stick out the daily grind and level of bureaucracy in a three-letter government agency, but they give a strong sense that spying is cool, and cool in a way that probably has only the most accidental resemblance to life in one of those bureaucratic organizations.

Cop shows likewise show police officers pulling their guns out much more than in real life; it is a frequent occurrence on the cop shows I’ve seen, while the last figure I heard was that real, live, flesh and blood police officers draw a gun on the job (apart from training) once every few years if even that.

Advertisement is produced as a service to the companies whose goods and services are being advertised, but the real message they sell is if anything further from the truth than the “accidental advertisement” of James Bond movies advertising a romantic version of bureaucratic intelligence agencies and cop shows making a dramaticization that effectively ignores the day-to-day work of police officers because it just doesn’t make good drama. (What would happen to the ratings of a cop show if they accurately portrayed the proportion of time that police officers spend filling out paperwork?)

Advertising sells claims that are further out. Two examples discussed in a class showed a family that moved, and what was juxtaposed as cementing this bonding time was a vacuum cleaner. In another commercial, racial harmony was achieved by eating a hamburger. The commercials that stuck with me from childhood were in one case kids jumping around with rotating camera angles because they were wearing a particular brand of shoes: When I asked my parents for those shoes, they explained to me that the commercial was made to make me want them, and I took a marker and colored the patterns on the bottom of the shoes on the add on to my shoes. Another one showed a game of Laser Tag that was end to end acrobatics. Now I have never played Laser Tag, and I get the impression people like it, but I doubt that its gear confers the ability to do theatrically delivered acrobatics.

Marketing is usually more subtle and seductive than I have portrayed it here. The vacuum cleaner did not offer any words connecting the appliance with family connectedness; it’s just that this family was going through a major experience and the vacuum cleaner appeared with perfect timing just at the center of that memory. The marketing message that is portrayed is seductive and false, and it is never the right basis to judge the product on. The product may be the right thing to buy and it may well be worth buying, but only after one has rejected the mystique so masterfully built up in the marketing proposition. If it is right for me to study ninjutsu, it will only be right after I have rejected the ninja mystique, something which the nearest dojo does in fact do: they refer to the martial art they teach as “toshindo”, nor “ninjutsu”, even though they refer to essentially the same thing in Japanese.

I have said earlier, or rather repeated, the words, “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” They bear repeating, but is there anything else to add? I would add three things:

  1. Reject sacramental shopping.
  2. Reject the mystique advertising has sold you this product on.
  3. Wait until your heart becomes clear about what is the best choice, and then make the best choice.

The best choice, in the third world, may be to buy a Mercedes-Benz instead of a Ford because you cannot afford to replace a Ford in six years.

But take care of the spiritual housecleaning first.

Martial arts
There have been two times in my life that I have studied martial arts, and both of them have been times of exceptional spiritual dryness. I have not felt any particular dryness when learning how to use a bow and arrow—or a .22—but there is something different about at least internal Asian martial arts. Practicing them, like Orthodoxy, is walking along a way. And it would seem somewhat confused to try to pursue one of these ways along with the Orthodox way.

I am careful of declaring this in the absolute; the literature is ambivalent but there are soldiers who bear the cross of St. George, and many of them have training in Asian martial arts. That looks to me grey, as outlined in the timeless way of relating.

I am tempted to train in ninjutsu: partly for technique, partly because the whole of the training includes stealth, and partly for practical self-defense. But I am treating that desire as a temptation, on the understanding that God can impress things on my conscience if he wants me to enter training.

MMO’s (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, like World of Warcraft)

“Do You Want to Date My Avatar?” was designed and created as a viral video, and something about it really stuck.

There are common threads between many of the things there, and an MMO is a cross between the MUDs I played in high school, and SecondLife. The MUDs were handled from pure text, leaving imagery in the player’s imagination; MMO’s provide their own imagery. Another form of escape.

Money and financial instruments

The Fathers commenting on St. Job also illustrate another principle of such wealth as existed then. St. Job is reported as having thousands of herd animals and thousands of beasts of burden, the wealthiest of the men of the East. But there are somewhat pointed remarks that wealthy Job is not reported to possess gold or silver. His wealth was productive wealth, living wealth, not a vault of dead metal coins. In modern terms he did not live off an endowment of stocks and bonds, but owned and ran a productive business.

Endowments are a means of being independently wealthy, and this ultimately means “independent from God.” Now the wealthiest are really as dependent on God as the poorest; let us remember the parable of the rich fool, in which a man congratulates himself for amassing everything he would need and that night the angels demanded his soul from him. The ending is much sadder than St. Job’s story.

Those of us in the world usually possess some amount of money, but there is something that makes me uncomfortable about the stock market overall, even moreso for the more abstract financial instruments. What one attempts to do is gain the most money from one’s existing money as much as possible, given the amount of risk you want and possibly including such outliers as ethical index funds which only index stocks deemed to meet an ethical standard. The question I have is, “What are we producing for what we get out of the stock market?” Working in a job delivers tangible value, or at least can. Investing in the stock market may be connected with helping businesses to function, but more and more abstract forms of wealth have the foul smell that heralds the coming of the damned backswing.

I would suggest as a right use of wealth acquiring tools that help you work, and being generous even or especially if money is tight. And explicitly depending on God.

Movies
When movies had arrived on the scene and were starting to have a societal effect, at least one Luddite portrayed a character moving from one movie to another in escapism. The premise may seem quaint now, but a little bit of that keeps on happening with new technologies.

One fellow parishioner talked about how in Japan, anime shows aired with a certain animation technique, and all of the sudden emergency rooms were asking why they were being inundated with people having epileptic seizures. And when they saw the connection, Japan stopped cold in its use of that animation technique. He said that that underscored to him the power of television and movies.

I don’t quite agree with him, any more than I would agree with using findings that extremely high levels of artificial light—fluorescent or incandescent‐cause problems, and we should therefore be very wary of lighting. For most sedentary people, even with artificial light (fluorescent or incandescent), the level of exposure to light is materially lower than natural exposure to the sun, and people who spend their time indoors tend to see less light (significantly less light) than people living outdoors. I didn’t accept his conclusion, but he followed with another insight that I can less easily contest.

He asked if I saw movies infrequently (we had not discussed the topic, but he knew me well enough to guess where I might stand), and I told him that I usually don’t watch movies. He asked me if I had ever observed that an hour after seeing a movie, I felt depressed. I had not made any connection of that sort, even if now it seems predictable from the pleasure-pain syndrome. And now I very rarely see movies, precisely because the special effects and other such tweaks are stronger than I am accustomed to seeing; they go like a stiff drink to the head of the teetotaler. And on this score I would rather not be the person who has a stiff drink every so often, and whose body tolerates alcohol better, but the person whose system hasn’t had to make such an adjustment, an adjustment that includes losses. The little pleasures of life are lost on someone used to a rising standard of special effects, and the little pleasures of life are more wholesome than special effects.

Multitasking
As I discussed in Religion And Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design Vs. Evolution, one of the forms of name-dropping in academic theology is to misuse “a term from science”: the claim to represent “a term from science” is endemic in academic theology, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve read “a term from science” that was used correctly.

One book said it was going to introduce “a term from computer science,” toggling, which meant switching rapidly between several applications. The moral of this story was that we should switch rapidly between multiple activities in our daily lives.

What I would have said earlier is, “While that moral might be true, what it is not is a lesson from computer science.” What I would say now is, “Never mind if that is a lesson from computer science. The moral is fundamentally flawed.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:22, Christ says, “If your eye be,” and then a word that doesn’t come across in translation very well. It is rendered “healthy” (NIV), “clear” (NASB), “sound” (RSV), and “good” (NKJV, NLT), Only the King James Version properly renders the primary sense of haplous as “single.” This may be a less user-friendly transltion but it captures something the other translations miss. The context of the discussion of the eye as the lamp of the body is about choosing whether to have a single focus in serving God, or try to multitask between serving God and money. Haplous does have “healthy”, “clear”, “sound”, and “good” as secondary meanings, but the primary meaning is the less accessible one that I have only found in the Greek and in the King James. If the eye is the lamp of the body, and it is important that the eye be single, then by extension the whole person is to be single, and as one aspect of this single eye, give a whole and single attention to one thing at a time. Now this is not necessarily a central, foreground focus in the Sermon on the Mount, but as its logic unfurls, even as spiritual silence unfurls, a single eye gives its whole and undivided attention to one thing at a time. (And study after study has shown that increased productivity through multitasking is an illusion; divided attention is divided attention and hurts all manner of actions.)

Nutriceuticals

The term “nutriceuticals is itself an ambiguous and ambivalent term.

On the one hand, ‘nutriceuticals’ can refer to the diet advanced by the Nourishing Traditions school, and while nutrition should not be considered on its own without reference to the big picture of exercise, work, light, almsgiving, fasting, prayer, and the Holy Mysteries, there is something to the recipes and type of diet advocated in Nourishing Traditions.

There are also the different, and differently excellent, nutriceuticals of a company that combines absolutely top-notch supplements with a pushy, multi-lev—I mean, a unique opportunity to become CEO of your own company. (I am formally a distributor; please contact me if you want to be a customer or possibly distributor without being pushed to drink Kool-Aid.)

However, it seems that everybody selling certain things wants to be selling “nutriceuticals”, and there are people selling “synthetic testosterone” as a “nutriceutical.” Friends, I really hope that the offer of “synthetic testosterone” is false advertising, because if it is false advertising they are probably delivering a better product than if it’s truth in advertising. Testosterone is a steroid, the chief of the anabolic steroids used to get muscles so big they gross girls out. Now testosterone does have legitimate medical uses, but using steroids to build disgustingly huge muscles can use up to a hundred times what legitimate medical use prescribes, and it does really nasty things to body, mind, and soul.

I get the impression that most things sold as nutriceuticals are shady; to authorities, illegal nutriceuticals are probably like a water balloon, where you step on it one place and it just slides over a bit to the side. It used to be that there were perhaps a dozen major street drugs on the scene; now there is a vast bazaaar where some “nutriceuticals” are squeaky-clean, and some “neutriceuticals” are similar in effect to illegal narcotics but not technically illegal, and some of them are selling testosterone without medical supervision or worse.

So buyer beware. There’s some good stuff out there (I haven’t talked about goji berries), but if you want a healthy diet to go with healthy living, read and cook from Nourishing Traditions, and if you want another kind of good nutriceutical supplement without being pushed to drink Kool-Aid, contact me and you might be my first customer. (No, I don’t have dreams of striking it rich through, um, “my business.” I am satisfied enough with my job.)

Old Technologies

There is a Foxtrot cartoon where the mother is standing outside with Jason and saying something like, “This is how you throw a frisbee.”—”This is how you play catch.”—”This is how you play tennis.” And Jason answers, “Enough with the historical re-enactments. I want to play some games!” (And there is another time when he and Marcus had been thrown out of the house and were looking at a frisbee and saying, “This is a scratch on the Linux RAID drive.”)

Old technologies are usually things that caused changes and moved people away from what might be called more natural forms of life. However, they represent a lower drug dose than newer technologies. The humble lead pencil may be historically be the kind of technology that converted cultures away from being oral; however, a handwritten letter to an old friend is profoundly different from a stream of texts. And in my technological soliloquoy above, two out of the three technologies I mentioned represent an old tradition. Being familiar with some of the best of older technologies may be helpful, and in general they do not have the layers on layers of fragile character that have been baked into new technologies. A Swiss Army Knife is still a portable toolchest if something messes up with the Internet. Bicycles are not a replacement for cars—you can’t go as fast or as far, or stock up on groceries—but many people prefer bicycles when they are a live option, and a good bicycle has far fewer points of failure than a new car.

I noted when I was growing up that a power failure meant, “Office work stops.” Now more recently an internet or network failure means, “Office work stops,” and there is someone who said, “Systems integration is when your computer doesn’t work because of a problem on a computer you never knew existed.” Older technologies are in general not so fragile, and have more of a buffer zone before you get in to the damned backswing.

Online forums
Online forums are something of a mixed blessing. They can allow discussion of obscure topics, and have many of the benefits of the the long tail. I happily referred someone who was learning Linux to unix.stackexchange.com. But the blessing is mixed, and when I talked with my priest about rough stuff on an Orthodox forum, he said, “People love to talk about Orthodoxy. The real challenge is to do it.”

Online forums may be more wisely used to consult for information and knowhow, but maybe not the best place to find friends, or perhaps a good place to find friends, but not a good place to use for friendship.

Planned obsolescence, fashion, and being built NOT to last
When I made one visit to the Dominican Republic, one thing that surprised me was that a substantial number of the vehicles I saw were Mercedes-Benz or other luxury brands by U.S. standards, while there were no or almost no U.S. cars. The reason I was given to this by my youth pastor is that you can keep a German engineered car up and running for 30 years if you take care of it; with a U.S. car you are doing well to have a car still running after 10 years. German cars, among others, are engineered and built to last; U.S. cars are engineered and built NOT to last. And in the Dominican Republic economy, buying a car that may well run for 30 years is something people can afford; buying a car that may only last 5-7 years is a luxury people cannot afford. An old but well-cared-for Mercedes Benz, Saab, Volvo, or BMW will probably last longer than a new car which is “imported from Detroit.”

One of the features of an industrual economy is that the economy needs to have machines in production and people buying things. If we ask the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth,” the decisive answer of industrial economy is, “Man was made for economic wealth.” There are artificial measures taken to manipulate culture so as to maximize production and consumption of economic wealth, three of which are planned obsolescence, fashion, and being built NOT to last.

Planned obsolescence socially enforces repeat purchases by making goods that will have a better version available soon; in computers relatively little exploration is done to make a computer that will last a long time, because computers usually only need to last until they’re obsolete, and that level of quality is “good enough for government work.” I have an iPhone 4 and am glad not to be using my needlessly snail-like AT&T-serviced iPhone 1, but I am bombarded by advertisements telling me that I need an iPhone 4S, implying that my iPhone 4 just doesn’t cut it any more. As a matter of fact, my iPhone 4 works quite nicely, and I ignored a link advertising a free port of the iPhone 4’s distinctive feature Sila. I’m sure that if I forked out and bought an iPhone 4S, it would not be long before I saw advertisements breeding discontent about my spiffy iPhone 4S, and giving me a next hot feature to covet.

In the Middle Ages, fashion changed in clothing about once per generation. In our culture, we have shifting fashions that create a manufactured social need to purchase new clothing frequently, more like once per year. People do not buy clothing nearly so often because it is worn out and too threadbare to keep using, but because fashion shifted and such-and-such is in. Now people may be spending less on fashion-driven purchases than before, but it is still not a mainstream practice to throw a garment out because further attempts to mend il will not really help.

And lastly, there is the factor of things being made to break down. There are exceptions; it is possible for things to be built to last. I kept one Swiss Army Knife for twenty years, with few repairs beyond WD-40 and the like—and at the end of those twenty years, I gave it as a fully functional hand-me-down to someone who appreciated it. There is a wide stripe of products where engineers tried to engineer something to last and last, and not just German engineers. However, this is an exception and not the rule in the U.S. economy. I was incredulous when a teacher told me that the engineering positions some of us would occupy would have an assignment to make something that would last for a while and then break down. But it’s true. Clothing, for instance, can be built to last. However, if you buy expensive new clothing, it will probably wear out. Goodwill and other second-hand stores sometimes have things that are old enough to be built to last, but I haven’t found things to be that much sturdier: your mileage may vary. And culturally speaking, at least before present economic difficulties, when an appliance breaks you do not really take it in for repairs. You replace it with a newer model.

All of these things keep purchases coming so the gears of factories will continue. Dorothy Sayers’ “The Other Six Deadly Sins” talks about how a craftsman will want to make as good an article as possible, while mechanized industry will want to make whatever will keep the machines’ gears turning. And that means goods that are made to break down, even when it is technologically entirely feasible for factories to turn out things that are built to last.

All of these answer the question, “Was economic wealth made for man, or man for economic wealth?” with a resounding, “Man was made for economic wealth.”

Porn and things connected to porn

There is a story about a philosopher who was standing in a river when someone came to him. The philosopher asked the visitor, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under the water for a little while, and asked him the second time, “What do you want?” The visitor answered, “Truth!” Then the philosopher held the visitor under water for what seemed an interminable time, and let him up and asked, “What do you want?” The visitor gasped and said, “Air!” The philosopher said, “When you want Truth the way you want air, you will find it.”

The same thing goes for freedom from the ever-darker chain called pornography, along with masturbation and the use of “ED” drugs to heighten thrills (which can cause nasty street drug-like effects even in marriage). To quote the Sermon on the Mount (RSV):

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

The Church Fathers are clear enough that this must not be taken literally; canon law forbids self-castration. But if you want to be free from addiction to pornography, if you want such freedom the way you want air, then you will do whatever it takes to remove the addiction.

What are your options? I’m not going to imitate the Dilbert strip’s mentioning, “How to lose weight by eating less food,” but there are some real and concrete steps you can take. If you shut off your internet service, and only check email and conduct internet business in public places with libraries, that might be the price for purity. If you are married, you might use one of many internet filters, set up with a password that is only known to your wife. You could join a men’s sexual addiction support group: that may be the price of freedom from porn, and it is entirely worth it. The general rule of thumb in confession is not to go into too much detail in confessing sexual sins, but going to confession (perhaps frequently, if your priest or spiritual father allows it) can have a powerful “I don’t want to confess this sin” effect. Another way to use the Internet is only go to use it when you have a defined purpose, and avoid free association browsing which often goes downhill. You could ask prayers of the saints, especially St. Mary of Egypt and St. John the Long-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves. You could read and pray “The Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ” in the Jordanville prayer book and St. Nectarios Press’s Prayers for Purity, if your priest so blesses.

Lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first it drains wonder and beauty out of everything else, and then it drains wonder and beauty out of itself: the only goal of lust is more lust. It works like a street drug. St. Basil the Great compared lust to a dog licking a saw: the dog keeps licking it because it likes the taste it produces, but it does not know that it is tasting its own woundedness, and the longer it keeps up at this, the deeper the wounds become.

Furthermore, an account of fighting sexual sin is incomplete if we do not discuss gluttony. What is above the belt is very close to what is below the belt, and the Fathers saw a tight connection between gluttony and lust. Gluttony is the gateway drug to lust. “Sear your loins with fasting,” the Fathers in the Philokalia tells us; the demon of lust goes out with prayer and fasting.

Sacramental shopping

I remember when I had one great struggle before surrendering, letting go of buying a computer for my studies, and then an instant later feeling compelled to buy it. The only difference was that one was sacramental shopping to get something I really needed, and the other was just getting what I needed with the “sacramental shopping” taken out.

In American culture and perhaps others, the whole advertising industry and the shape of the economy gives a great place to “sacramental shopping”, or shopping as an ersatz sacrament that one purchases not because it is useful or any other legitimate concern, but because it delivers a sense of well-being. Like Starbucks, for instance. Some have argued that today’s brand economy is doing the job of spiritual disciplines: hence a teacher asks students, “Imagine your future successful self. With what brands do you imagine yourself associating?” and getting no puzzled looks or other body language indicating that students found the question strange. I’ve mentioned brands I consume both prestigious and otherwise; perhaps this piece would be better if I omitted mention of brands. But even if one rejects the ersatz spirituality of brands, not all brands are created equal; my previous laptop was an IBM Thinkpad I used for years before it stopped working, and the one before that was an Acer that demonstrated “You get what you pay for.” Investing in something good—paid for in cash, without incurring further debt—can be appropriate. Buying for the mystique is spiritual junk food. (And in telling about my iPhone, I didn’t mention that I tried migrating to a Droid, before realizing its user interface didn’t stack up to the iPhone’s.)

Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need,” is a rejection of brand economy as a spiritual discipline. Buy things on their merits and not because of the prestige of the brand. And learn to ignore the mystique that fuels a culture of discontent. Buy new clothes because your older clothing is wearing out, not because it is out of fashion. (It makes sense to buy classic rather than trendy.)

SecondLife
Most of the other technologies mentioned here are technologies I have dealt with myself, most often at some length. SecondLife by contrast is the one and only of the technologies on this list I haven’t even installed due to overwhelming bad intuitions when I tried to convince myself it was something I should be doing.

It may be, some time later, that SecondLife is no longer called SecondWife, and it is a routine communication technology, used as an audio/visual successor to (purely audio) phone conversations. The web was once escape, one better than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and now it can be explored but it is quite often used for common nuts and bolts. No technology is permanently exotic: perhaps sometime the world of SecondLife will seem ordinary. But for now at least, it is an escape into building an alternative reality, and almost might as well be occult, as the foundations of modern science, for the degree of creating a new alternate reality it involves.

Smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, and desktop computers

Jakob Nielsen made a distinction between computers that are movable, meaning laptops and netbooks which can be moved with far less difficulty and hassle than a desktop system, and mobile, meaning that they are the sort of thing a person can easily carry. Netbooks cross an important line compared to full-sized laptops; a regular laptop weighs enough on the shoulder that you are most likely to take a laptop in its carrying case for a reason, not just carry it like one more thing in a pocket. Netbooks, which weigh in at something like two pounds, are much lighter on the shoulder and they lend themselves more readily to keeping in a backpack, large purse, or bag of holding, without stopping to consider, “Do I really want t carry this extra weight?” Not that this is unique to netbooks; tablets are also light enough to just carry with you. Smartphones cross another important line: they are small enough to keep tucked in your pocket (or on your belt.

I was first astonished when I read that one iPhone user had completely displaced her use of the desktop computer. It surprised me for at least three reasons. First, the iPhone’s screen is tiny compared to even a small desktop screen; one thing programmers tend to learn is the more screen space they have, the better, and if they have any say in the matter, or if they have savvy management, programmers have two screens or one huge screen. Second, especially when I had an iPhone 1 that came with painfully slow and artificially limited bandwidth, the niche for it that I saw was as an emergency surrogate for a real computer that you use when, say, you’re driving to meet someone and something goes wrong. A bandwidth-throttled iPhone 1 may be painfully slow, but it is much better than nothing. And lastly, for someone used to high-speed touch typing on a regular keyboard, the iPhone, as the original Droid commercials stomped on the sore spot, “iDon’t have a real keyboard.” You don’t get better over time at touch typing an iPhone keyboard because the keyboard is one you have to look at; you cannot by touch move over two keys to the left to type your next letter. What I did not appreciate then was that you give the iPhone keyboard more focus and attention than touch typing a regular keyboard calls from; the “virtual keyboard” is amazing and it works well when you are looking at it and typing with both thumbs. And once that conceptual jolt is past, it works well.

But what I didn’t appreciate when that woman said she had stopped using her computer was that the desktop computer is wherever you have to go to use the desktop computer, while the iPhone is in one’s pocket or purse. And there is an incumbency advantage to the iPhone that is in one’s pocket or purse. It’s not just that you can only use your home computer when you are at home; if you are in one room and the computer is in another, it is less effort to jot a brief email from the phone than go to the other room and use the computer.

Laziness is a factor here; I have used my iPhone over my computer due to laziness. But more broadly a desktop or even laptop computer is in something of a sanctuary, with fewer distractions; the smartphone is wherever you are, and that may be a place with very few distractions, and it may be a place with many distractions.

Smartphones, tablets, netbooks, laptops, and desktops are all computers. The difference between them is how anchored or how portable they work out to be in practice. And the more mobile a computer is, the more effectively it will be as a noise delivery system. The ascetical challenge they represent, and the need to see that we and not the technologies hold the reins, is sharper for the newer and more mobile models.

Social networks
I personally tend not to get sucked in to Facebook; I will go to a social networking site for a very particular reason, and tend not to linger even if I want something to do. There is a reason for this; I had an inoculation. While in high school I served as a student system administrator, on a system whose primary function in actual use was a social network, with messages, chatting, forums, and so on and so forth. I drank my fill of that, so to speak, and while it was nowhere near so user-friendly as Facebook, it was a drug from the same family.

Having been through that, I would say that this is not what friendship is meant to be. It may be that friends who become physically separated will maintain correspondence, and in that case a thoughtful email is not much different from a handwritten letter. As I wrote in Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis:

  • “Social networking” is indeed about people, but there is something about social networking’s promise that is like an ambitious program to provide a tofu “virtual chicken” in every pot: there is something unambiguously social about social media, but there is also something as different from what “social” has meant for well over 99% of people as a chunk of tofu is from real chicken’s meat.
  • There is a timeless way of relating to other people, and this timeless way is a large part of Ascesis. This is a way of relating to people in which one learns to relate primarily to people one did not choose, in friendship had more permancy than many today now give marriage, in which one was dependent on others (that is, interdependent with others), in which people did not by choice say goodbye to everyone they knew at once, as one does by moving in America, and a social interaction was largely through giving one’s immediate presence.
  • “Social networking” is a very different beast. You choose whom to relate to, and you can set the terms; it is both easy and common to block users, nor is this considered a drastic measure. Anonymity is possible and largely encouraged; relationships can be transactional, which is one step beyond disposable, and many people never meet others they communicate with face-to-face, and for that matter arranging such a meeting is special because of its exceptional character.
  • Social networking can have a place. Tofu can have a place. However, we would do well to take a cue to attend to cultures that have found a proper traditional place for tofu. Asian cuisines may be unashamed about using tofu, but they consume it in moderation—and never use it to replace meat.
  • We need traditional social “meat.” The members of the youngest generation who have the most tofu in their diet may need meat the most.

“Teleporters”

I use the term “teleporters” because I do not know of a standard name, besides perhaps the name of one of the eight capital vices, for a class of technologies and other things that are in ways very different from each other but all have the same marketing proposition: escape. Not that one needs technologies to do this; metaphysics in the occult sense is another means to the same end. But all of them deliver escape.

A collection of swords is not usually amassed for defense: the owner may be delighted at the chance to learn how to handle a medieval sword, but even if the swords are “battle ready” the point is not self-defense. It’s a little bit of something that transports us to another place. Same thing for movies and video games. Same thing for historical re-enactments. Same thing, for that matter, for romances that teach women to covet a relationship with a man that could never happen, and spurn men and possibilities where a genuinely happy marriage can happen. And, for that matter, ten thousand things.

There are many things whose marketing proposition is escape, and they all peter out and leave us coveting more. They are spiritual poison if they are used for escape. There may be other uses and legitimate reasons—iPhones are, besides being “avoid spiritual work” systems, incredibly useful—but the right use of these things is not found in the marketing proposition they offer you.

Television

Television has partly been ousted with Facebook; TV is stickier than ever, but it still can’t compete with the web’s stickiest sites.

However, a couple of Far Side cartoons on television are worth pondering; if they were written today, they might mention more than TV.

In one cartoon, the caption reads, “In the days before television,” and a whole family is staring blankly at a blank spot on a wall, curled around it as if it were a television. The irony, of course, is that this is not what things were like before television began sucking the life out of everything. The days before television were that much more dynamic and vibrant; Gary Larson’s caption, with a cartoon that simply subtracts television from the eighties, is dripping with ironic clarity about precisely what the days before television were not.

In the other cartoon, an aboriginal tribesman stands at the edge of a chasm, a vine bridge having just been cut and fallen into the chasm and making the chasm impassible. On the other side were a group of angry middle-class suburbanites, and the tribesman was holding a television. The caption read, “And so Mbogo stood, the angry suburbanites standing on the other side of the chasm. Their idol was now his, as well as its curse.”

Some years back, an advertising executive wrote, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (one friend reacted, “The author could only think of four?”), and though the book is decades old it speaks today. All of the other technologies that have been stealing television’s audiences do what television did, only more effectively and with more power.

I said at one point that the television is the most expensive appliance you can own. The reasoning was simple. For a toaster or a vacuum cleaner, if it doesn’t break, it costs you the up front purchase price, along with electricity, gas, or any other utilities it uses. And beyond those two, there is no further cost as long as it works. But with television, there was the most powerful propaganda engine yet running, advertising that will leave you keeping up with the Joneses (or, as some have argued after comparing 1950’s kitchen appliances with 1990’s kitchen appliances, keeping up with the Trumps). In this ongoing stream, the programming is the packaging and the advertising is the real content. And the packaging is designed not to steal the show from the content. Today television rules less vast of a realm, but megasites deliver the same principle: the reason you go to the website is a bit of wrapping, and the product being sold is you.

Our economy is in a rough state, but welcome to keeping up with the Trumps version 2.0. The subscription fees for smartphones and tablets are just the beginning.

The timeless way of relating

Christopher Alexander saw that computers were going to be the next building, and he was the champion who introduced computer-aided design to the field of architecture. Then he came to a second realization, that computer-aided design may make some things easier and faster, but it does not automatically make a building better: computer aided design makes it easier to architect good and bad buildings alike, and if you ask computers to make better buildings, you’re barking up the wrong fire hydrant.

But this time his work, A Timeless Way of Building, fell on deaf ears in the architectural community… only to be picked up by software developers and be considered an important part of object-oriented software design. The overused term MVC (“model-view-controller”), which appears in job descriptions when people need a candidate who solves problems well whether or not that meant using MVC, is part of the outflow of object-oriented programming seeing something deep in patterns, and some programmers have taken a profound lesson from A Timeless Way of Building even if good programmers in an interview have to conceal an allergic reaction when MVC is presented as a core competency for almost any kind of project.

There really is A Timeless Way of Building, and Alexander finds it in some of ancient and recent architecture alike. And in the same vein there is a timeless way of relating. In part we may see it as one more piece of it is dismantled by one more technology migration. But there is a real and live timeless relating, and not just through rejecting technologies.

C.S. Lewis, in a passage in That Hideous Strength which has great romantic appeal if nothing else, talks about how everything is coming to a clearer and sharper point. Abraham was not wrong for his polygamy as we would be for polygamy, but there is some sense that he didn’t profit from it. Merlin was not something from the sixth century, but the last survival in the sixth century of something much older when the dividing line between matter and spirit was not so sharp as it is today. Things that have been gray, perhaps not beneficial even if they are not forbidden, are more starkly turning to black or white.

This is one of the least convincing passages for Lewis’s effort to speak of “mere Christianity.” I am inclined to think that something of the exact opposite is true, that things that have been black and white in ages past have more leniency, more grey. Not necessarily that leniency equals confusion; Orthodoxy has two seemingly antitethetical but both necessary principles of akgravia (striving for strict excellence) and oikonomia (the principle of mercifully relaxing the letter of the law). We seem to live in a time of oikonomia from the custom which has the weight of canon law, where (for instance) the ancient upper class did far less physical exertion than the ancient lower class and slaves, but middle class fitness nuts today exercise less than the ancient upper class. Three hours of aerobic exercise is a lot. While we pride ourselves on abolishing legal slavery, we wear not only clothing from sweatshops made at the expense of preventable human misery, but large wardrobes and appliances and other consumer goods that bear a price tag in human misery. Many Orthodox have rejected the position of the Fathers on contraception from time immemorial, and the Church has been secularized enough for many to get their bearings from one article.

But two things are worth mentioning here. The first is that this is a time that invites prophets. Read the Old Testament prophets: prophets, named “the called ones” in the Old Testament never come when things are going well to say “Keep it up. Carry on your good work!” They come in darker days.

Second, while we live in a time where mere gloom is called light and we rely on much more oikonomia than others, oikonomia is real Orthodoxy in proper working order, and in ways Orthodoxy with oikonomia is much greater than rigidly rejecting oikonomia. The people who call themselves “True Orthodox”, or now that “True Orthodox” sounds fishy, rename the term “Genuine Orthodox” to avoid the troubles they have created for the name of “True Orthodox.” And despite observing the letter of canons more scrupulously than even the most straight-laced of normal Orthodox, these people are people who don’t get Orthodoxy, and would do well to receive the penance of eating a thick steak on a strict fast day.

And despite having so many slices taken out, the timeless way of relating is alive and well. It is present at a meal around table with friends. It is present when a man and wife remain together “til death do us part.” It is present when Catholics adore the Eucharist, or Evangelicals don’t miss a Sunday’s church for years and keep up with their quiet times and Bible studies. “Conversation is like texting for adults,” said our deacon, and the timeless way of relating is there when people use texting to arrange a face-to-face visit. The timeless way of relating is always close at hand.

Video games
I was introduced to the computer game rogue and while in school wanted to play rogue / UltraRogue for as long as I could. When I decided in grad school that I wanted to learn to program, I wrote a crufty and difficult-to-understand roguelike game implemented in 60,000 lines of C.

Those many hours I played in that fantasy land were my version of time lost in television. There are things I could have done that I didn’t: create something, explore time outside, write letters. And as primitive and humble as rogue is, it stems from the same root as World of Warcraft. It is one of several technologies I have tasted in an egg: rogue, UltraRogue, The Minstrel’s Song, and different MUDs; or a command-line computer doing the work of a social network. And on that score, see Children’s toys on Baudelaire’s “la Morale du Joujou”. The newer games and social network may connect more dots and do some of your imagining for you. The core remains: you sit in front of a computer, transported to a fantasy land, and not exploring the here and now that you have been placed in in all its richness.

The Web

When I was a boy and when I was a youth, it was a sheer delight to go to Honey Rock Camp. I don’t want to elaborate on all of my fond memories but I would like to point to one memory in particular: the web.

Resourceful people had taken a World War II surplus piece of netting, attached it to the edges of a simple building, and pulled the center up by a rope. The result was everything a child wants from a waterbed, and I remember, for instance, kids gathering on the far side of the web, my climbing up the rope, and then letting go and dropping five or ten feet into the web, sending little children flying. And as with my other macho ways of connecting with children, if I did this once I was almost certainly asked to do it again. (The same goes, for some extent, with throwing children into the web.)

I speak of that web in the past tense, because after decades of being a cherished attraction, the web was falling apart and it was no longer a safe attraction. And the people in charge made every effort to replace it, and found to everyone’s dismay that they couldn’t. Nobody makes those nets; and apparently nobody has one of those nets available, or at least not for sale. And in that regard the web is a characteristic example of how technologies are handled in the U.S. (“Out with the old, in with the new!“) Old things are discarded, so the easily available technologies are just the newer one.

Software is fragile; most technological advances in both software and hardware are more fragile than what they replace. Someone said, “If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.” The web is a tremendous resource, but it will not last forever, and there are many pieces of technology stack that could limit or shut off the web. Don’t assume that because the web is available today it will equally well be available indefinitely.

Conclusion

This work has involved, perhaps, too much opinion and too much of the word “I”; true Orthodox theology rarely speaks of me, “myself, and I,” and in the rare case when it is really expedient to speak of oneself, the author usually refers to himself in the third person.

The reason I have referred to myself is that I am trying to make a map that many of us are trying to make sense of. In one sense there is a very simple answer given in monasticism, where renunciation of property includes technology even if obediences may include working with it, and the words Do not store up treasures on earth offer another simple answer, and those of us who live in the world are bound not to be attached to possessions even if they own them. The Ladder of Divine Ascent offers a paragraph addressed to married people and a book addressed to monastics, but it has been read with great profit by all manner of people, married as well as monastic.

Somewhere amidst these great landmarks I have tried to situate my writing. I do not say that it is one of these landmarks; it may be that the greatest gift is a work that will spur a much greater Orthodox to do a much better job.

My godfather offered me many valuable corrections when I entered the Orthodox Church, but there is one and only one I would take issue with. He spoke of the oddity of writing something like “the theology of the hammer”; and my own interest in different sources stemmed from reading technological determinist authors like Neil Postman, and even if a stopped clock is right twice a day, their Marxism is a toxic brew.

However, I write less from the seductive effects of those books, my writing is not because they have written XYZ but because I have experienced certain things in mystical experience. I have a combined experience of decades helping run a Unix box that served as a social network, and playing MUDs, and sampling their newer counterparts. My experience in Orthodoxy has found great mystical truth and depth in the words, Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Part of that pruning has been the involuntary removal of my skills as a mathematics student;; much of it has been in relation to technology. The Bible has enough to say about wealth and property as it existed millenia ago; it would be strange to say that Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth speaks to livestock and owning precious metals but has nothing to do with iPads.

One saint said that the end will come when one person no longer makes a path to visit another. Even with social media, we now have the technology to do that.

Let our technology be used ascetically, or not at all.

Read more of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology on Amazon!